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$13 Million Ohio Wrongful Conviction Verdict Upheld by Sixth Circuit

On December 2, 2014, the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed a district court jury verdict which awarded $13 million to a man who spent 12 years in prison for a murder conviction later overturned for malicious prosecution and Sixth Amendment violations. The verdict came just a little over one year after the Sixth Circuit reversed the man's conviction when it granted his petition for a writ of habeas corpus.

David Ayers was convicted in 1999 for the murder of a Cleveland woman, Dorothy Brown. After initially focusing their attention on another suspect, police turned their investigation to Ayers after he appeared to fail a voice stress test, which was administered after police received false information from a witness implicating Ayers in the crime.

After Ayers was arrested, two Cleveland police detectives used a jailhouse informant to elicit information from Ayers about the woman's death. When the informant did not provide enough details about the crime, the detectives sent him back into Ayers' pod to further question him. The trial court later denied Ayers' motion to suppress the informant's testimony on the basis that police had illegally used the informant as their agent in violation of Ayers' Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Ayers was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

After all of his state court appeals were exhausted and denied, Ayers filed a 28 U.S.C. § 2254 habeas corpus petition on four grounds, one of which was that the government had violated his right to counsel when the police sent the informant into the jail to garner information from Ayers. In 2010, after a federal district court denied Ayers relief, on appeal the Sixth Circuit granted his petition and ordered his retrial or release form custody. When the State chose not to retry him, Ayers was released in September 2011.

Ayers then filed suit against the detectives and several other defendants asserting that they had violated his constitutional rights, including his Sixth Amendment right to counsel. The district court denied several of the police defendants' motions, including one for dismissal based on qualified immunity grounds, and a jury returned a verdict in favor of Ayers in the amount of $13 million. The two detectives appealed the verdict.

The Sixth Circuit affirmed, however, holding that the defendants had forfeited their qualified immunity defense on procedural grounds. "Once a case proceeds to trial, the full record developed in court supersedes the record existing at the time of the summary judgment motion," the court found, holding that the detectives proper course of action would have been to file an interlocutory appeal prior to trial.

The appellate court also denied the detectives' appeal of the denial of their trial motion to dismiss the case for lack of evidence. But the motion was made at the wrong time and thus not reviewable on appeal, the court said. "They did not make a renewed motion pursuant to Rule 50(b) after the jury returned its verdict as required by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure ... and we again decline to hear [this] argument," the court concluded.

Finding no other trial court errors requiring reversal of the verdict, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the judgment of the district court. See: Ayers v. City of Cleveland, et al., No. 13-3413 (6th Cir. 2014).

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Related legal case

Ayers v. City of Cleveland, et al.