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8th Circuit: Qualified Immunity Denied to Nebraska Investigative Team Which Manufactured False Evidence to Secure Murder Conviction of Innocent Party

In October 2012, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of qualified immunity to a team of investigators accused of conspiring to manufacture false evidence and procuring false testimony to implicate and convict an innocent man of murder and rape. The man, Joseph White, was sentenced to life in prison without parole. A subsequent reinvestigation of the case conclusively established his innocence and led to the overturning of his conviction and release from prison.

In 1989, Joseph White was convicted by a jury of felony murder in the February 1985 murder and rape of Helen Wilson in Beatrice, Nebraska. The prosecution’s case rested primarily on the testimony of White’s co-defendants - Ada Taylor, James Dean, Kathleen Gonzalez, and Debra Sheldon - each of whom had confessed and pleaded guilty or no contest to various criminal charges arising from the Wilson homicide. (Another co-defendant, Thomas Winslow, refused to testify against White. He, too, ultimately pleaded no contest. See related PLN story concerning Winslow, Taylor and Gonzalez).

White served more than 18 years in prison before DNA testing cleared him (and the other five defendants) from involvement in the Wilson murder. After his release and exoneration, White filed a section 1983 lawsuit against members of the Gage County Sheriff’s Office and the various state entities involved in the investigation and prosecution of the Wilson murder, alleging that the defendants violated his due process rights to a fair criminal proceeding. (White died after filing suit, but it was revived by his father as representative of the estate.)

The defendants moved for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. The district court denied the motion.

On appeal, the Eight Circuit held that the evidence in the record gave rise to a reasonable inference that the defendants systematically and intentionally coached witnesses into providing false testimony that fit their narrative of the crime, and that they repeatedly ignored any evidence that did not fit within that narrative. The court found that the evidence suggested a pattern whereby “Defendants first convinced a suspect that he or she was at the scene of the crime through lies, threats, leading questions, manipulative ‘therapy’ sessions, and the alleged accusations of several other ‘accomplices’; and then if the suspect’s blood was not a match for the blood found at the crime scene, Defendants manipulated the suspect into implicating yet another individual, thus beginning the process again.” The court further held that a reasonable fact finder could determine that the defendants had acted purposefully in fabricating evidence to obtain White’s conviction.

“Ultimately,” the Court concluded, “White was placed in the nightmare scenario of having to maintain his innocence in the face of five co-defendants who were systematically manipulated or convinced into falsely accusing [him] of rape and murder.”

The judgment of the district court was affirmed. See White v. Smith, 696 F.3d 740 (8th Cir. 2012).

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Related legal case

White v. Smith