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Gilliam v. Sealey

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

July 30, 2019

J. DUANE GILLIAM, Guardian of the Estate of Leon Brown; RAYMOND C. TARLTON, Guardian Ad Litem for Henry Lee McCollum, Plaintiffs - Appellees,
v.
KENNETH SEALEY, both individually and in his official capacity as the Sheriff of Robeson County; ROBERT E. PRICE, Administrator C.T.A. of the Estate of Joel Garth Locklear, Sr., Defendants - Appellants, and HENRY LEE MCCOLLUM; LEON BROWN; GERALDINE BROWN RANSOM, Guardian of Leon Brown; KIMBERLY PINCHBECK, as limited guardian and conservator of the estate of Henry Lee McCollum, Plaintiffs, and ROBESON COUNTY; TOWN OF RED SPRINGS; KENNETH SNEAD; JOEL GARTH LOCKLEAR; LARRY FLOYD; LEROY ALLEN; ESTATE OF LUTHER HAGGINS; GERALDINE BRITT HAGGINS, as Administratix/Executrix of the Estate of Luther Haggins; PAUL CANADY, Administrator C.T.A of the Estate of Luther Haggins; FAYETTEVILLE OBSERVER-TIMES; ASSOCIATED PRESS; WTVD TELEVISION LLC; CHARLOTTE OBSERVER, Defendants. J. DUANE GILLIAM, Guardian of the Estate of Leon Brown; RAYMOND C. TARLTON, Guardian Ad Litem for Henry Lee McCollum, Plaintiffs - Appellees, and HENRY LEE MCCOLLUM; LEON BROWN; GERALDINE BROWN RANSOM, Guardian of Leon Brown; KIMBERLY PINCHBECK, as limited guardian and conservator of the estate of Henry Lee McCollum, Plaintiffs,
v.
KENNETH SNEAD; LEROY ALLEN, Defendants - Appellants, and ROBESON COUNTY; TOWN OF RED SPRINGS; KENNETH SEALEY, both individually and in his official capacity as the Sheriff of Robeson County; JOEL GARTH LOCKLEAR; LARRY FLOYD; ESTATE OF LUTHER HAGGINS; GERALDINE BRITT HAGGINS, as Administratix/Executrix of the Estate of Luther Haggins; PAUL CANADY, Administrator C.T.A of the Estate of Luther Haggins; ROBERT E. PRICE, Administrator C.T.A. of the Estate of Joel Garth Locklear, Sr.; FAYETTEVILLE OBSERVER-TIMES; ASSOCIATED PRESS; WTVD TELEVISION LLC; CHARLOTTE OBSERVER, Defendants.

          Argued: March 20, 2019

          Appeals from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, at Raleigh. Terrence W. Boyle, Chief District Judge. (5:15-cv-00451-BO)

         ARGUED:

          James R. Morgan Jr., WOMBLE BOND DICKINSON (US) LLP, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for Appellants.

          Catherine E. Stetson, HOGAN LOVELLS U.S. LLP, Washington, D.C., for Appellees.

         ON BRIEF:

          Bradley O. Wood, WOMBLE BOND DICKINSON (US) LLP, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for Appellants K. Sealey and R. Price.

          Joshua H. Stein, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF NORTH CAROLINA, Raleigh, North Carolina; Matthew W. Sawchak, Brian D. Rabinovitz, NORTH CAROLINA DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellants K. Snead and L. Allen.

          E. Desmond Hogan, Kirti Datla, David W. Maxwell, Elizabeth C. Lockwood, Matthew J. Higgins, HOGAN LOVELLS U.S. LLP, Washington, D.C., for Appellees.

          Before NIEMEYER, THACKER, and RICHARDSON, Circuit Judges.

          THACKER, CIRCUIT JUDGE:

         This case stems from the wrongful conviction of two brothers, both teenaged boys with severe intellectual disabilities, for the rape and murder of an 11 year old girl in 1983. Henry McCollum and Leon Brown ("Appellees") spent 31 years in prison and on death row[1] before being exonerated based on DNA evidence linking another individual, a man who was known to officers at the time of the investigation, to the crime. Following their release from prison, Appellees brought this case pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that the state and county law enforcement officers investigating the crime violated their Fourth Amendment and due process rights.

         The officers moved for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. The district court denied their motion, and this appeal followed. Because Appellees have alleged facts sufficient to show that the officers violated their clearly established Fourth Amendment and due process rights, we affirm the district court's denial of qualified immunity.

         I.

         A.

         The Underlying Crime and Investigation

         Eleven year old Sabrina Buie went missing on the evening of September 24, 1983, in Red Springs, North Carolina. Two days later, her body was discovered in a soybean field near a convenience store in Red Springs. She was found naked from the waist down, with her bra pushed up over the back of her head. Her panties were shoved down her throat with a stick, and she had been sexually assaulted.

         The Red Springs Police Department and the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation ("SBI") worked together to investigate the case. SBI Agents Leroy Allen and Kenneth Snead and Robeson County Detectives Joel Garth Locklear and Kenneth Sealey (collectively, "Appellants") were assigned to the case. While processing the crime scene, Appellants discovered three Schiltz Malt Liquor beer cans, three match sticks, one Newport cigarette butt, and two wooden sticks reddened with blood.

         On September 27, 1983, while canvassing the neighborhood for witnesses, Detective Locklear spoke to Henry McCollum, who denied any knowledge of Buie's disappearance. However, the following evening, Agent Snead and Detective Sealey interviewed Ethel Furmage, a high school student, who said that she had "heard at school" that McCollum "had something to do with" Buie's murder. J.A. 304.[2] Shortly after 9:00 that evening, Snead, Sealey, and Agent Allen traveled to McCollum's home to interview him. McCollum agreed to ride with the officers to the police station, where he was fingerprinted and questioned.

          B.

         Interrogations of Appellees

         1.

         McCollum

         What exactly happened in the interrogation room is at the heart of this case and is, as the district court determined, a dispute of material fact that must be determined by a jury. This is what we know for sure. At the time of these events, McCollum was 19 years old, and he suffered from severe intellectual disabilities. He scored a 56 on an IQ test, where any score below a 69 indicates intellectual disability. In high school, McCollum performed at the level of an eight to ten year old. And in 1990, McCollum was formally diagnosed as intellectually disabled. McCollum had never been in legal trouble.

         A Miranda[3] waiver form bearing McCollum's signature is dated September 28, 1983, at 10:26 p.m. At 2:10 a.m. on September 29, McCollum signed a handwritten confession that was drafted by Agent Snead and witnessed by Detective Sealey and Red Springs Police Department Chief Luther Haggins. This confession stated the following: McCollum, along with four other boys -- Darrell Suber, Louis Moore, Chris (last name unknown), and Leon Brown -- were with Buie at approximately 9:30 p.m. on September 24, the day she went missing. Suber and Chris left the group to buy a six-pack of beer from the nearby convenience store. When they returned, Suber, Chris, McCollum, Moore, and Brown discussed raping Buie, because she had not agreed to have sex with them voluntarily. After this conversation, Moore left. The rest of the group walked with Buie to the woods at the edge of a field and drank beer. Suber and Chris smoked Newport cigarettes.

         Per the confession, McCollum grabbed Buie's right arm while Brown grabbed her left arm. The group of boys then took turns raping Buie, with McCollum going third and Brown going last. Afterwards, Suber said they had to do something so that Buie would not tell the police what they had done. Chris tied Buie's pink panties to a stick, then used it to choke Buie to death. While this was happening, McCollum and Brown held Buie down and Suber cut her with a knife. Then, after they believed Buie was dead, the boys dragged her body to the edge of the woods. Suber had blood on his brown corduroy jacket and gray Nike tennis shoes, and Chris had blood on his sneakers.

         After McCollum signed the confession, he was placed under arrest for Buie's rape and murder.

         2.

         Brown

         During McCollum's interrogation, his mother Mamie Brown and brother Leon Brown arrived at the police station. At approximately 2 a.m. on September 29, and based on McCollum's written confession, Detective Locklear and Chief Haggins began to interrogate Brown.

         Brown was 15 years old at the time, and like his brother, he had been diagnosed with severe intellectual disabilities. He consistently scored in the mid-50s range on IQ tests, and although he was in seventh grade, he performed at a third grade level. In 1982, a school psychologist had placed Brown in a special education class. Like his brother, Brown had not previously been in legal trouble.

         At 2:24 a.m., Brown signed a form entitled "Juvenile Rights Warning."[4] Then, around 6 a.m., Brown signed a confession that had been drafted by Detective Locklear. Following Brown's confession, he was arrested for the rape and murder of Buie.

         3.

         Confession Inconsistencies

         Brown's confession implicated Suber and Chris, but it differed in certain aspects from McCollum's confession. Notably, Brown's confession makes no mention of Moore's involvement, and it does not reference a stick being used to force Buie's underwear down her throat.

         The confessions of McCollum and Brown also contained certain details that were later proven false. For example, both confessions stated that Suber and Chris were involved in the crime and took turns raping Buie, but the police verified that Suber, Chris, and Moore all had alibis on the night of the murder. And contrary to the confessions, an autopsy revealed that Buie's panties were white, not pink, and she had no stab wounds.

         C.

         Criminal Proceedings and Post-Conviction Relief

         1.

         1984 Trial

         Appellees were indicted by a grand jury on January 3, 1984, on charges of first-degree murder and rape. They were tried together in Robeson County Superior Court in October 1984. The prosecutor was District Attorney Joe Freeman Britt, McCollum was represented by Earl Strickland, and Brown was represented by Robert Johnson.

         Appellees both moved to suppress their confessions. These motions were denied. The trial court concluded that both McCollum and Brown had voluntarily gone to the police station; each had knowingly and intelligently waived his rights; and each had made statements freely, voluntarily, and knowingly. Appellees both testified at trial, and each was convicted and sentenced to death.

         2.

         Second Trials

         On appeal, the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case for a new trial based on error in the jury instructions. See North Carolina v. McCollum, 364 S.E.2d 112 ( N.C. 1988). Appellees were then tried separately in adjacent counties.

         McCollum was retried in Cumberland County in November 1991. The Cumberland County Superior Court denied McCollum's motion to suppress his confession, concluding that McCollum's constitutional rights were not violated by his arrest, detention, interrogation, or confession; that his confession was made freely and voluntarily; and that McCollum waived his rights freely, knowingly, and intelligently. During the November 1991 trial, and with McCollum's consent, McCollum's attorney argued to the jury that McCollum was present for the rape and murder of Buie, and he asked the jury to return a verdict of second-degree murder. McCollum was found guilty of first-degree murder and rape, and he was again sentenced to death. The North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed McCollum's conviction and sentence. See North Carolina v. McCollum, 433 S.E.2d 144 ( N.C. 1993). The United States Supreme Court denied McCollum's petition for writ of certiorari. See McCollum v. North Carolina, 512 U.S. 1254 (1994).

         After McCollum's trial, Brown was retried in Bladen County Superior Court in June 1992. Brown's motion to suppress his confession was denied after the trial court concluded that Brown knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waived his rights; that his constitutional rights had not been violated; and that his confession was voluntary. The trial court later granted a defense motion to dismiss the first-degree murder charge, finding that Brown had withdrawn from the conspiracy to commit murder. The jury found Brown guilty of first-degree rape, and he was sentenced to life in prison. The North Carolina Court of Appeals and the North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed Brown's conviction and sentence. See North Carolina v. Brown, 436 S.E.2d 163 ( N.C. Ct. App. 1993); North Carolina v. Brown, 453 S.E.2d 165 ( N.C. 1995). Brown did not file a petition for writ of certiorari to the United States Supreme Court.

         3.

         NCIIC Investigation

         In 2009, Brown sought assistance from the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission ("NCIIC"), and the NCIIC accepted his case. The NCIIC then reached out to McCollum and accepted his case as well. In its investigation, the NCIIC uncovered DNA evidence on the Newport cigarette butt found at the scene of the crime. The DNA matched Roscoe Artis, a man known to Appellants during the investigation of Buie's murder.

         In 1984, Artis was convicted of a crime strikingly similar to Buie's murder: the first-degree murder and rape of Joann Brockman, also in Red Springs, North Carolina. On October 22, 1983 -- less than one month after Buie's murder -- Brockman's body was found naked except for a sweater and bra pushed up above her breasts, and an autopsy revealed that she died from manual strangulation during sexual intercourse. Artis was arrested the same day, and he was tried in August 1984. The prosecutor for Artis's trial was district attorney Joe Freeman Britt, and Artis was represented by Earl Strickland -- both of whom would be involved in McCollum and Brown's October 1984 trial just two months later. Appellants Agent Allen and Detective Locklear, who were involved in the investigation of Brockman's murder, testified for the state in Artis's trial.[5] Artis received a death sentence, which was commuted to life in prison. See North Carolina v. Artis, 384 S.E.2d 470 ( N.C. 1989), judgment vacated, 494 U.S. 1023 (1990); see also North Carolina v. Artis, 406 S.E.2d 827 ( N.C. 1991).

         The DNA tested on other items of physical evidence from the scene of Buie's murder did not match McCollum or Brown.

         4.

         MAR Court Proceedings and Pardons

         Based on this DNA evidence, Appellees filed motions for appropriate relief ("MAR") in the Robeson County Superior Court. At a hearing on these motions held September 2, 2014, the NCIIC's investigator testified about inconsistencies between Appellees' written confessions and the DNA match to Artis on the cigarette. The state did not contest that the newly discovered DNA evidence was favorable to Appellees, and it conceded that Appellees had satisfied the requirements of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-270(c), which governs the relief available to petitioners who come forward with favorable DNA evidence post-conviction. The MAR court held, "especially when considered together with the rest of the results of the [NCIIC]'s investigation," the favorable DNA evidence "tend[s] to establish Henry McCollum's and Leon Brown's innocence of [the] crime for which they were convicted and sentenced." J.A. 309. Accordingly, the MAR court vacated Appellees' convictions and sentences from Robeson, Cumberland, and Bladen counties, dismissed with prejudice all charges in the cases, and ordered Appellees' immediate release.

         On June 5, 2015, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory issued full pardons of innocence to Appellees.

         D.

         District Court Proceedings

         Appellees filed this action against Appellants on August 31, 2015. The amended complaint alleges four claims arising pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983: false arrest, malicious prosecution, deprivation of due process, and municipal liability. At the root of these claims, Appellees assert that Appellants coerced and fabricated Appellees' confessions, and then, to cover up this wrongdoing, Appellees allege that Appellants withheld in bad faith exculpatory evidence that demonstrated ...


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