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Second Circuit Declares Police Firearms Examiners Subject to Brady, Examiner Who Failed to Disclose Exculpatory Ballistics Report Not Entitled to Qualified Immunity

by Douglas Ankney

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the decision of the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut that held police forensic firearms examiner James Stephenson was not entitled to qualified immunity in a suit alleging he withheld exculpatory ballistics reports in violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), thereby violating the defendant’s due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.

In January 1999, officers from the New Haven Police Department (“NHPD”) apprehended Steve Brown after he made calls from a cell phone stolen from a clerk during a robbery at the Dixwell Deli. Customer Caprice Hardy was killed in the robbery.

However, NHPD detectives ignored that evidence and zeroed in on teens Vernon Horn and Marquis Jackson as the suspects. The detectives concealed the records of Brown’s phone calls and even coached Brown to falsely swear that Horn and Jackson convinced him to participate in the robbery, during which Horn shot Hardy with a Beretta handgun.

Shortly after the robbery, the NHPD sent the shell casings recovered from the scene to the Connecticut State Police Forensic Science Laboratory (“State Police Laboratory”) for analysis. In February 1999, Stephenson generated a General Rifling Characteristics Report (“1999 GRC Report”) that listed all the firearm models that potentially matched the ballistics evidence, using a margin of error of +/- 2 thousandths of an inch. A Beretta handgun was not among the possible matches. Stephenson subsequently prepared a memo listing all the possible firearms that matched the shell casings. The memo was provided to the State’s Attorney’s Office and to counsel for Horn and Jackson—but the 1999 GRC Report was never forwarded to either the prosecution or the defense.

Shortly before trial in 2000, Assistant State’s Attorney Gary Nicholson noticed a discrepancy in the evidence involving the Beretta and Stephenson’s memo, so he called Stephenson and asked him if the murder weapon could have been a Beretta handgun. Stephenson then prepared another GRC Report (“2000 GRC Report”), using a significantly increased margin of error of +/- 4 thousandths of an inch. The 2000 GRC Report listed multiple Beretta models as potential matches. Again, the 2000 GRC Report was not disclosed to the prosecution or the defense.

At Horn and Jackson’s joint trial, Stephenson testified that the murder weapon could have been a Beretta, based on “new information” he claimed was provided by Nicholson. Stephenson denied creating any “reports when he had gotten the new information from the State’s Attorney’s Office.” Horn and Jackson were both convicted and sentenced to 70 and 45 years in prison, respectively.

In 2018, in response to a re-investigation of the case by the Connecticut Federal Public Defender’s Office, the NHPD produced Brown’s call records from the stolen cellphone; the 1999 GRC Report; and the 2000 GRC Report. After reviewing the newly disclosed evidence, the State’s Attorney’s Office moved to vacate the convictions of both Horn and Jackson. Both men were released. Brown had served 19 years in prison, and Horn had served 17 (Horn was released for two years upon a grant of habeas corpus that was later reversed and he was re-incarcerated).

Horn and Jackson each brought separate 42 U.S.C. § 1983 actions against the City of New Haven and certain law enforcement officials—including a claim that Stephenson violated their due process rights under Brady. Stephenson filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that in both cases he was entitled to qualified immunity. The district court denied his motion, and Stephenson appealed. He argued he was entitled to qualified immunity because in 1999 it had not been clearly established that a firearms examiner had a duty to disclose exculpatory evidence.

The Court observed “[q]ualified immunity shields the official from civil liability unless: ‘[1] the official violated a statutory or constitutional right that [2] was clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct.’” Reichle v. Howards, 566 U.S. 658 (2012).

In 1963, Brady established the affirmative duty of the prosecution to turn over evidence favorable to the defense. In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed that the prosecution “has a duty to learn of any favorable evidence known to others acting on the government’s behalf in the case, including the police.” Kyles v. Whitley, 514 U.S. 419 (1995). In Walker v. City of New York, 974 F.2d 293 (2d Cir. 1992), the Second Circuit recognized that the government’s Brady obligations also apply to police and held that “the police satisfy their obligations under Brady when they turn exculpatory evidence over to the prosecutors.” The Court explained that the rule makes sense because police may lack “the requisite legal acumen” to decide what material constitutes Brady evidence.

In the instant case, Stephenson argued that Walker does not apply to a firearms examiner employed by the State Police Laboratory. The Court rejected that argument because Stephenson was an employee of the State Police Laboratory, and his principal function was to provide technical assistance to police investigating crimes, i.e., Stephenson understood himself to be functioning as a police officer.

The fact that Stephenson was a technical specialist, not a sworn officer, “does not place him beyond the scope of Walker,” the Court stated. The Court declared that “no reasonable police forensic examiner would have understood Walker to turn on the distinction between sworn and unsworn police officers,” as Stephenson argued. Thus, the Court expressly ruled that Brady obligations apply to forensic examiners in state crime labs and that Stephenson is not entitled to qualified immunity.

The Court noted that several other circuits have reached the same conclusion. Brown v. Miller, 519 F.3d 231 (5th Cir. 2008); Moldowan v. City of Warren, 578 F.3d 351 (6th Cir. 2009); Jones v. City of Chicago, 856 F.2d 985 (7th Cir. 1988); Pierce v. Gilchrist, 359 F.3d 1279 (10th Cir. 2004).

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the order of the district court. See: Horn v. Stephenson, 11 F.4th 163 (2d Cir. 2021). 

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Related legal case

Horn v. Stephenson

 

 

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