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Dismissal of Wrongfully Convicted Prisoner’s Fabricated Evidence Claims Upheld on Appeal

Dismissal of Wrongfully Convicted Prisoner’s Fabricated Evidence Claims Upheld on Appeal

by David Reutter

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed a grant of judgment on the pleadings to two officers from North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in a civil rights case that alleged they had fabricated evidence.

In 1999, Shawn Massey was convicted of robbery with a dangerous weapon, felonious breaking and entering, and three counts of second-degree kidnapping, which resulted in an aggregate sentence of 137 to 183 months.

The convictions stemmed from a May 22, 1998 incident in which the victim, Samantha Wood, said she returned home at around 10 a.m. with her two young children and found an armed man at the door of her apartment. He held a gun to her eighteen-month-old child, pushed the family into the apartment and attempted to rape her.

Because Wood was menstruating, the man instead searched for money and Wood gave him over sixty dollars from her purse. After 30 minutes the man left the apartment. Despite his threat to kill Wood and her family if they reported the incident, she called the police.

The description she gave to Officer J.J. Ojaniit was of a black man who wore “his hair pulled back from his face and (4) small braids on the back of his head.” The next day Officer Gerald Esposito spoke to a witness who had seen a black man exit the apartment, and reported that the witness also said the man had small braids. Based upon that identification and Massey being placed near the crime scene, an arrest warrant was obtained. Massey subsequently went to trial, where Wood positively identified him; he was convicted and his conviction was affirmed on appeal.

In the mid-2000s, the Wrongful Conviction Clinic at Duke University began investigating Massey’s case. The Clinic obtained a series of mug shots taken of Massey between April 18, 1991 and May 29, 1998. Each showed him with short hair. Two professional barbers submitted affidavits that Massey could not have grown his hair long enough to have it braided in cornrows between March 9, 1998, the date one of the mug shots was taken, and the day of the May 22 crime. The Clinic also discovered that Wood had expressed doubt to the prosecutor that Massey was her assailant after first seeing him in court.

Based upon that evidence, the Clinic’s investigation prompted the prosecutor to move to set aside Massey’s conviction, and he was released after the state court granted the motion on May 6, 2010. Massey then filed suit in federal court, alleging he had been wrongfully arrested, convicted and imprisoned for almost 12 years based on fabricated evidence. He raised claims for “violation of due process under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, unreasonable seizure and malicious prosecution under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, and conspiracy to contravene his constitutional rights.”

The defendants moved to dismiss under F.R.C.P. 12(c), arguing that the complaint failed to state a claim. The district court granted their motion and Massey appealed.

On July 21, 2014, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the dismissal. The first issue was that Officer Esposito had fabricated a witness statement that the assailant wore braids. Massey’s argument, that if he did not wear braids then he could not have been the assailant, was an “overstatement” according to the Court of Appeals. Myriad factors “influence a witness[’s] memory and perception,” the Court noted.

Moreover, the suspect having braids was not a central issue at trial. The prosecution’s case focused on positive in-court identifications and contradicting alibi evidence. Thus, even if Esposito had fabricated the statement in his report, there was not a strong nexus with Massey’s conviction.

Next, the appellate court turned to the claim that Officer Ojaniit had omitted in his report the words “the most” from Wood’s statement, after viewing a photo lineup, that Massey looked “the most like” her assailant. The Fourth Circuit observed that not only was Massey positively identified and placed near the crime scene, Ojaniit had accurately described Wood’s complete statement to the jury at trial.

Further, Massey had failed to object to recommendations by a magistrate judge with respect to the defendants’ motion for judgment on the pleadings, and the Fourth Circuit stated that “Our precedent ... is ‘replete with warnings that the consequence of failing to file objections [to a magistrate’s report] is waiver of the right to appeal.’”

The Court of Appeals noted that “Fabrication of evidence alone is insufficient to state a claim for a due process violation; a plaintiff must plead adequate facts to establish that the loss of liberty – i.e., his conviction and subsequent incarceration – resulted from the fabrication.” The appellate court concluded that it could not be shown that Massey’s “conviction was a reasonably foreseeable result of [the] initial act of fabrication.” Consequently, the district court’s order of dismissal was affirmed. See: Massey v. Ojaniit, 759 F.3d 343 (4th Cir. 2014).


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Related legal case

Massey v. Ojaniit