2nd Circuit Revives Federal Wrongful Conviction Challenge

By Michael Joseph on February 09, 2019

Our New York police misconduct lawyers know that police sometimes bend the rules and manipulate if  it create fabricated evidence. When this happens innocent people are wrongfully convicted and their lives are shattered.

One such case was Kareem Bellamy who was convicted in 1995 of murdering James Abbott in Far Rockaway on the morning of April 9, 1994, based largely on the evidence of two witnesses, and a statement police claimed Bellamy made in the squad car upon arrest.  After serving 14 years of a 25-years-to-life sentence for a depraved indifference murder and weapon possession conviction, Bellamy’s habeas petition was granted by a state court after new evidence cast doubt on his guiltIn 2012, Bellamy filed his federal civil rights suit against NYPD Detectives, as well as the city, claiming wrongful conviction and an unfair trial.

On January 29, 2019, the dismissed federal civil rights suit brought by Bellamy against New York City was reanimated by a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit panel majority.  Circuit Judges of the District of Connecticut, sitting by designation, revived the bulk of the claims that had been dismissed by U.S. District Judge of the Eastern District of New York in 2017. The majority found ample material issues raised by the handling of the case investigation by two New York City police detectives, and the actions of the Queens District Attorney’s Office during prosecution, to warrant a jury’s review at trial.

Bellamy’s consistent denial of making, and the detectives failure to properly record, an alleged statement—and its use at trial—as well as a witness’ denial about seeing Bellamy that was used at trial to potentially lead jurors astray, and another witness’ known contradictory statements to detectives that never were shared with the defense were among those issues the panel majority found the district court improperly dismissed. Out New York glade improsonment attorneys know that slanted evidence is fundamentally unfair and paints a deceiving picture of what really happened especially when exculpatory evidence is suppressed. The majority likewise reversed the district court’s dismissal of two claims under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1978 decision in Monell v. Department of Social Services of City of New York. Bellamy claimed he suffered a constitutional violation that the city is responsible for when Queens prosecutors failed to disclose the substantially greater relocation benefits a witness received from the office as part of its witness protection program. Bellamy also claimed that improper statements made by the trial prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney, during his closing summations amounted to a denial of due process.

The majority panel argued that, in keeping with its line of precedents on the matter, the city’s argument that more recent Supreme Court rulings shifted the analysis of responsibility remained unavailing. The city’s contention, if adopted, would turn such precedent “on its head,” the majority wrote.

The opinion of the district court powerfully vindicated the office. Two judges from the circuit court panel indicated that issues of fact requiring additional litigation exist, and the third member of the circuit court panel fully supported the opinion from the district court. A spokesman for the city’s Law Department said the city was disappointed and is evaluating its legal options.

As relevant on appeal, Bellamy alleged that Detectives fabricated inculpatory evidence and failed to disclose material exculpatory or impeaching evidence depriving Bellamy of his rights to due process and a fair trial. Bellamy alleged that the City is responsible, pursuant to Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 98 S. Ct. 2018, 56 L. Ed. 2d 611 (1978), for violations of Bellamy's due process rights caused by certain policies of the office of the Queens County District Attorney ("QCDA"), the office that prosecuted Bellamy. Principally, Bellamy alleged that (i) the QCDA's office failed to disclose to the defense substantial benefits received by a key state witness due to an office policy of purposefully shielding from prosecutors (and thereby the defense) the full scope of relocation benefits given to witnesses in its witness protection program; and (ii) his prosecutor made prejudicial improper remarks during his summation, which was ultimately a result of the QCDA's office's customary indifference to its prosecutors' summation misconduct. New York law as well as federal constitutional law has long required that the defense be made aware of information that undercuts the believability of prosecution witnesses as a matter of Due Process.

The district court granted Defendants-Appellees' motion for summary judgment and dismissed each of Bellamy's claims. As relevant here, the district court rejected the claims against Detectives on the ground that Bellamy raised no material issue of fact as to whether either detective fabricated or withheld material evidence. The district court rejected the claims against the City, concluding that the City could not as a matter of law be liable under Monell for the alleged policies of the QCDA's office, and that, in any event, Bellamy did not raise a material issue of fact as to either of the constitutional violations underlying his Monell claims.

The questions for our determination are whether Bellamy has produced sufficient evidence to raise material issues of fact that must be tried to a jury and whether the district court erred in dismissing the Monell claims as a matter of law. If not, summary judgment was proper; if so, then summary judgment should not have been granted.

It was hence concluded that Bellamy has raised material issues of fact as to certain, but not all, of his claims that Detectives fabricated and withheld material evidence. Our Newyork Attorney's agree that the  City of New York was rightfully held liable for the consequences of the alleged policies of the QCDA's office under the Monell doctrine, and that Bellamy has raised material issues of fact as to the underlying constitutional violations: the non-disclosure of financial benefits received by one of the state's principal witnesses and the impropriety of his prosecutor's summation. So this case will go to trial.

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