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Eleventh Circuit Agrees Prosecutor is Entitled to Qualified Immunity in Retaliation Case

by Chad Marks

Douglas Echols was convicted of a 1986 kidnapping and rape in Georgia despite his protestations of innocence. After serving seven years of a 15-year sentence, a DNA test revealed that semen recovered from the victim did not match Echols. The trial court vacated his conviction and ordered a new trial.

The district attorney in the case, Spencer Lawton, who also served in that role when Echols was convicted, entered a nolle prosequi on the charges. The trial court, in turn, dismissed the indictment. [See: PLN, July 2010, p.24].

Four years later, a bill was introduced in Georgia’s General Assembly to compensate Echols with $1.6 million for his wrongful conviction and incarceration. Prior to lawmakers voting on the bill, Lawton sent letters to several legislators opposing any compensation for Echols. In his correspondence, he falsely wrote that Echols remained under indictment for kidnapping and rape even though the indictment had been dismissed. Echols was told the compensation bill would not pass due to Lawton’s false statements.

Echols filed suit in federal court in 2008, arguing that Lawton had interfered with his freedom of speech and right to petition the government, and had retaliated against him for exercising those rights. The district court granted Lawton’s motion to dismiss the complaint. The district attorney retired in 2009.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the judgment in favor of Lawton on January 25, 2019, finding he was entitled to qualified immunity. However, in doing so the Court of Appeals also issued a rebuke, noting that “Echols’s complaint states a valid claim that Lawton violated a right protected by the First Amendment.” However, that right was not clearly established when the prosecutor violated it.

“Lawton allegedly misled legislators to believe, as a matter of fact, that Echols remained under indictment for kidnapping and rape – the very charges for which Echols had been wrongly convicted. Lawton, more than any other official, spoke with authority and credibility because he represented the state in its earlier prosecution of Echols for kidnapping and rape and continued to hold that office. But Lawton allegedly knew that the state had entered a nolle prosequi on these charges four years earlier.”

The appellate court wrote that while it condemned Lawton’s alleged behavior, “the Supreme Court has long ruled that qualified immunity protects a badly behaving official unless he had fair notice that his conduct would violate the constitution.”

Accordingly, the district court’s judgment in favor of Lawton was affirmed. See: Echols v. Lawton, 913 F.3d 1313 (11th Cir. 2019). 

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Related legal case

Echols v. Lawton