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Civil suit against prosecutor, lab technicians, can proceed

Ralph D. Armstrong v. Karen D. Daily, et al., 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Nos. 13-3424 & 13-3482, 5/11/15

Ralph Armstrong was imprisoned for 29 years for the 1980 rape and murder of Charise Kamps—a crime that he maintains he did not commit. His conviction was set aside in 2005, State v. Armstrong, 2005 WI 119, 283 Wis. 2d 639, 700 NW 2d 98, and in 2009 a circuit court judge dismissed the charges entirely because the prosecution had destroyed key exculpatory evidence, rendering a fair trial impossible. In 2012 Armstrong filed a civil suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the prosecutor and state crime laboratory technicians who, he alleges, deprived him of liberty without due process of law by destroying exculpatory evidence to frame him for Kamps’s murder. The Court of Appeals rejects the defendant’s qualified immunity claims and holds Armstrong’s case can proceed.

Armstrong claims that prosecutor John Norsetter acted in bad faith by allowing the loss or destruction of drug paraphernalia found at the crime scene—evidence that could exculpate Armstrong and implicate the real killer. This evidence was allegedly tossed in a plastic trash bag, placed in an office storage locker, and lost before Armstrong’s trial in 1981.

Armstrong also claims that after the Wisconsin Supreme Court vacated his conviction and ordered a new trial in 2005, two state lab technicians, Karen Daily and Daniel Campbell, deliberately violated a state court order to preserve evidence by destroying an exculpatory DNA sample in 2006. At the request or order of Norsetter—but without notice to the court or the defense, as required by a circuit court order—Daily and Campbell performed an inconclusive test that consumed all of a DNA sample extracted from a newly discovered semen stain on the victim’s bathrobe belt. This test could not distinguish between Armstrong and his late brother, who Armstrong claims was the true killer (and who had allegedly confessed to an acquaintance, who in turn told Norsetter in 1995). The destruction of the DNA sample prevented Armstrong from performing other tests that could have distinguished between him and his brother. Armstrong spent three more years in prison before a state court finally dismissed the charges because of the destruction of the DNA sample.

The defendants moved to dismiss the case on grounds of qualified immunity, but the Court of Appeals affirms the district court’s decision to allow both claims to proceed, holding, among other things, that:

  • Armstrong’s due process claims based on the destruction or loss of exculpatory evidence are not barred by the availability of state tort remedies for the same wrongs because the doctrine of Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527 (1981), does not apply to the actions of law enforcement officers that undermine the fairness of a criminal trial.
  • At the time of the original investigation, which occurred before Arizona v. Youngblood, 488 U.S. 51 (1988), it was clearly established under Killian v. United States, 368 U.S. 231 (1961), and Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), that bad-faith destruction or loss of exculpatory evidence would violate a suspect’s due process rights; therefore a reasonable police officer or prosecutor would not have concluded that he could instead destroy evidence to avoid disclosing it to the defense.

A necessarily bare-bones summary of a lengthy opinion (57 pages, with one judge concurring and dissenting in part), we bring this decision to your attention not so much for its relevance to your day-to-day practice of criminal law as for the fact it arises out of a widely-known Wisconsin prosecution.

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