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Eastridge v. United States

February 12, 2007

JOSEPH WAYNE EASTRIDGE, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Colleen Kollar-kotelly United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

In January 1976, Joseph Wayne Eastridge, Joseph Nick Sousa and Michael A. Damien were convicted in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia of first-degree murder, while armed, and thereafter were sentenced to twenty years to life.*fn1 On May 26, 2005, Judge Rosemary M. Collyer, United States District Court Judge for the District of Columbia, granted Plaintiffs Eastridge and Sousa's Petition and Supplemental Petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2241.*fn2 In so doing, Judge Collyer found, inter alia, that the prosecution's failure to produce certain Grand Jury testimony during Plaintiffs' 1976 trialviolated Plaintiffs Eastridge and Sousa's due process rights, as interpreted in Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 83 S.Ct. 1194, 10 L.Ed. 2d 215 (1963).

In the instant action, Plaintiffs seek monetary damages from Defendants -- the United States of America and the two former Assistant United States Attorneys for the District of Columbia, Joseph J. Guerrieri, Jr. and Martin J. Linsky,*fn3 who were the prosecutors in Plaintiffs' 1976 trial -- based on Defendants' alleged violations of Plaintiffs' civil rights under the Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss Plaintiffs' Complaint, which Plaintiffs oppose. Upon a searching review of Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, Plaintiffs' Opposition, Defendants' Reply, the relevant statutes and case law, Judge Collyer's May 26, 2005 Opinion, and the entire record herein, the Court shall grant Defendants' motion to dismiss and shall therefore dismiss Plaintiffs' Complaint in its entirety.

I. BACKGROUND

In January 1976, Plaintiffs Joseph Wayne Eastridge, Joseph Nick Sousa, decedent Michael A. Damien, and non-party Stephen C. Jones were convicted in the Superior Court for the District of Columbia of first-degree murder, while armed, for the stabbing death of Johnnie Battle. Compl. ¶ 11. A fifth co-defendant, Richard C. Richter, was convicted of assault. Id. Plaintiffs were prosecuted by Defendant, the United States of America, by and through Defendant Assistant United States Attorneys Joseph J. Guerrieri and Martin J. Linsky. Id.; ¶ 14.

At trial, the Government's theory of the case was that a group associated with a motorcycle gang, the Pagans, was involved in a racially-charged confrontation with three black men, including Mr. Battle, outside the Godfather Lounge in Washington, D.C. Id. ¶ 19; see also, Eastridge v. United States, 372 F. Supp. 2d 26, 28-29 (D.D.C. 2006) (Collyer, J.) (granting Plaintiffs' Petition and Supplemental Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus). After a series of verbal exchanges, Mr. Battle retrieved a handgun from his car and fired into the group, wounding one of the Pagans. Compl. ¶ 19; Eastridge, 372 F. Supp. 2d at 29. Mr. Battle fled on foot down Wisconsin Avenue. Compl. ¶ 19; Eastridge, 372 F. Supp. 2d at 29. Plaintiffs and Mr. Jones allegedly gave chase, with their knives drawn, chasing Mr. Johnnie Battle up to Wisconsin Avenue, where Mr. Battle was seen tripping on a curb, falling backwards, with his arms up, and being stabbed repeatedly by Plaintiffs and Mr. Jones. Compl. ¶ 19; Eastridge, 372 F. Supp. 2d at 29.

Plaintiffs' convictions were affirmed on appeal by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. Eastridge, 372 F. Supp. 2d at 43. In 1981, Plaintiff Eastridge filed a motion for a new trial in the District of Columbia Superior Court, which was denied without an evidentiary hearing. Id. That denial was affirmed by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. Id. In September 1983, Plaintiff Damien filed a pro se Motion to Vacate Judgment and Sentence in the Superior Court, which was also denied. Id. In April 1995, Plaintiffs Eastridge and Sousa filed a joint Motion to Vacate Convictions and Request for Evidentiary Hearing in the Superior Court, requesting that the court vacate their convictions based on new evidence and actual innocence. Id. The Superior Court determined that Plaintiffs Eastridge and Damien's new evidence claims were barred by the applicable statute of limitations, and that the new evidence did not outweigh the testimony presented at trial. Id. at 43-44. The Court of Appeals affirmed in a divided decision, finding that Plaintiffs Eastridge and Damien's new evidence claims were time-barred.

Id. at 44.

In December 2000, Plaintiffs filed a Petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2241, which the United States opposed. Id. at 45. After briefing and oral argument, Judge Collyer ordered an evidentiary hearing "to determine whether, in light of new evidence, [Plaintiffs] were entitled to a substantive review of their constitutional claims." Id. Judge Collyer conducted this three-day evidentiary hearing in December 2004, "at which [Plaintiffs Eastridge and Sousa] tried to disprove the Government's theory of the case at trial -- that [Plaintiffs Eastridge and Sousa] chased Mr. Battle on foot with "knives drawn." Id. Plaintiffs Eastridge and Sousa also "sought to demonstrate that, given all the evidence available now, no reasonable juror could find them guilty of the murder of Mr. Battle." Id. at 46. During this three-day hearing, Plaintiffs Eastridge and Sousa elicited testimony from new witnesses and new evidence from witnesses who appeared at trial, but whose testimony was limited or foreclosed by virtue of an evidentiary rule imposed by the judge during Plaintiffs' 1976 trial that prevented Plaintiffs' lawyers from "making arguments or introducing evidence through direct or cross-examination that could 'bring into play any other defendant.'" Id. at 35, 46.

Among the witnesses who testified during the December 2004 evidentiary hearing was Ms. Pamela Heim. Id. at 47. Ms. Heim originally testified for the Government at Plaintiffs' 1976 trial, including testifying that Mr. Charles Jennings and Mr. John Wood, two other members of the Pagans, were among the group of gang members at the Godfather Lounge on the night that Mr. Battle was killed and that Messrs. Jennings and Wood were present during the confrontations with Mr. Battle and his companions. Id. at 47; Compl. ¶ 22. During the 2004 hearing before Judge Collyer, Ms. Heim was questioned about the Grand Jury testimony of Messrs. Jennings and Wood, which was not provided to the defense for use at trial. Eastridge, 372 F. Supp. 2d at 47. Neither Mr. Jennings nor Mr. Wood testified at trial, however, "Mr. Jennings told the Grand Jury that, after [a prior incident that evening], both he and Mr. Wood decided not to go to the Godfather." Id.; Compl. ¶ 21. "Mr. Wood's Grand Jury testimony was substantially similar, adding that Mr. Jennings had driven him home and that he was in "no way involved in any of the events that took place at or near the Godfather Lounge." Eastridge, 372 F. Supp. 2d at 47; Compl. ¶ 21. In response to questioning at the December 2004 evidentiary hearing, Ms. Heim reaffirmed her trial testimony. Eastridge, 372 F. Supp. 2d at 47.Ms. Heim also testified at the December 2004 evidentiary hearing that after the incident at the Godfather Lounge, she returned to the Virginia home of the leader of the Pagans, where Mr. Jennings and another member of the gang later arrived "looking 'distraught' and stated that they 'got to lay low' and 'that they had run all the way from D.C.'" Id. at 48 (quoting Evidentiary Hearing Transcript). This testimony was not allowed at Plaintiffs' 1976 trial based on the trial judge's evidentiary rule. Id.

In her May 26, 2005 Memorandum Opinion granting Plaintiffs Eastridge and Sousa's Petition for a writ of habeas corpus, Judge Collyer reviewed in great detail the history of Plaintiffs' 1976 trial and the evidence and testimony presented at the 2004 evidentiary hearing, as well as a number of documents that Plaintiffs Eastridge and Sousa submitted in support of their Petition. Id. at 51-52. These included: (1) an affidavit from Plaintiffs' co-defendant, Mr. Jones, "recanting his trial testimony, admitting his role in the murder of Mr. Battle, and affirming that Messrs. Eastridge, Sousa, and Damien did not participate in the murder. The affidavit identifies Messrs. Jennings and Wood (both deceased), an unnamed individual, and Mr. Jones as the individuals who killed Mr. Battle;" (2) affidavits from two former Pagans with criminal records "stating that in the 1970s Mr. Wood confessed to his role in the murder," implicated Messrs. Jennings and Jones in the murder, and professed Plaintiffs' innocence; and (3) an affidavit from Mr. Richter, also a co-defendant in Plaintiffs' 1976 trial "attesting that Mr. Wood confessed his role in the murder to him," that Mr. Jennings told him that he threw his knife away as he fled from the scene of the murder, and that Mr. Jennings desired to turn himself in shortly before he died. Id. at 51.

Based on the entirety of this record, Judge Collyer concluded that "this is the rare case in which Petitioners can prove their 'actual innocence' of the crime charged as well as violations of their constitutional rights at trial." Id. at 29; Compl. ¶ 17. Specifically, Judge Collyer found that Plaintiffs Eastridge and Sousa were "actually innocent" of the murder of Mr. Battle both as principals and as aiders and abettors. Eastridge, 372 F. Supp. 2d at 53-56. Judge Collyer continued to examine whether Plaintiffs Eastridge and Sousa's "actual innocence" was accompanied by the requisite "constitutional error that probably resulted in their conviction." Id. at 56. In so doing, Judge Collyer found that the evidentiary rule imposed by the trial judge at Plaintiffs' 1976 trial violated Plaintiffs Eastridge and Sousa's Fifth Amendment right to shift the blame to others and also violated their Sixth Amendment right to confront and fully cross-examine all Government witnesses against them. Id. at 59.

In addition, Judge Collyer found that the "prosecution's failure to produce the Grand Jury testimony of Messrs. Wood and Jennings was a constitutional violation that prejudiced [Plaintiffs Eastridge and Sousa] at trial." Id. at 59. Judge Collyer based this finding on Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 83 S.Ct. 1194, in which the Supreme Court held that "the suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused upon request violates due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment, irrespective of the good or bad faith of the prosecution." Id., 3373 U.S. at 87, 83 S.Ct. 1194. Judge Collyer determined that the Grand Jury testimony of Messrs. Jennings and Wood was both exculpatory and material, stating:

As a general matter, false exculpatory statements can produce an inference of guilt. The combination of Ms. Heim's testimony that Mr. Wood and Mr. Jennings were present at the Godfather; that Mr. Jones was among those who chased Mr. Battle; and that Barber and Jennings ran on foot to Virginia, arriving distraught and wanting to hide, would have materially supported [Plaintiffs Eastridge and Sousa's] trial argument that the unindicted 'phantoms' (no longer phantoms, but identified persons) were more likely the murderers. Had they been aware of the false testimony, defense counsel might have presented Ms. Heim with more-particularized questions about Mr. Wood and Mr. Jennings. Of course, they could also have called both men to testify and to confront their own Grand Jury testimony in an effort to show that persons other than [Plaintiffs Eastridge and Sousa] could have committed the murder.

Id. at 60; Compl. ¶ 28. Judge Collyer further found that "the prosecution was aware of" the discrepancy between Messrs. Jennings and Wood's Grand Jury testimonyand the trial record, "but did not produce the Grand Jury transcripts." Id. at 59.

Based largely on Judge Collyer's May 26, 2005 Memorandum Opinion, Plaintiffs filed their five-count Complaint on March 10, 2006, alleging that Defendants violated Plaintiffs "civil rights, including substantive and due process rights, and all other civil rights guaranteed to Plaintiffs under the Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution of the United States of America." Compl. ¶ 1. Count One is brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the United States, as well as Defendants Guerrieri and Linsky in their individual and official capacities, and alleges that Defendants "acting deliberately, recklessly and under color of law, withheld and suppressed exculpatory and impeachment evidence from the Plaintiffs" that resulted in "their wrongful convictions and imprisonments," and violated the Fourteenth Amendment, as interpreted in Brady v. Maryland. Id. ¶¶ 33-34. Plaintiffs further allege that Defendants "engaged in illegal behavior by helping establish or carry out regulations, customs, ordinances, rules, practices, and/or policies . . . that manifested a deliberate indifference to and reckless disregard of the rights of the Plaintiffs and other citizens;" that Defendants "deliberately, recklessly and under color of law violated Plaintiffs' Fourteenth ...


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