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Eastridge v. United States

March 12, 2009

JOSEPH WAYNE EASTRIDGE, ET AL. PETITIONERS,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA RESPONDENT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rosemary M. Collyer United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

After serving decades in prison for a murder they did not commit, Petitioners Joseph Wayne Eastridge, Joseph N. Sousa, and the Estate of Salvatore Infantolino, a.k.a. Michael A. Damien, now petition for a Certificate of Innocence so that they can proceed with wrongful conviction claims before the United States Court of Federal Claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § § 1495, 2513. In its habeas opinion, this Court found "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." Eastridge v. United States, 372 F. Supp. 2d 26, 29 (D.D.C. 2005). The United States opposes the petition, asserting that Petitioners are ineligible because they brought about their own prosecution by engaging in misconduct. The United States also argues that Mr. Damien's petition should be denied because he did not, and could not, receive habeas relief from the Court inasmuch as he had died in 2002, before the Court's decision. The Court agrees that it did not formally adjudicate Mr. Damien's innocence and it cannot, therefore, issue a Certificate of Innocence to his Estate. The Court will otherwise grant the petitions of Messrs. Eastridge and Sousa.

I. FACTS

Johnnie Battle, a Black man, was horribly stabbed to death by a group of White men in 1976 because of racial animus and alcohol. The crime occurred near Wisconsin Avenue and Ellicott Streets, N.W., Washington, D.C. Its racial overtones immediately captured the intense attention of the entire city.

Decedent Michael A. Damien, Joseph W. Eastridge, Stephen C. Jones, and Joseph N. Sousa were convicted in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia of first degree murder, while armed. Mr. Jones did not appeal his conviction. Messrs. Damien, Eastridge, and Sousa pursued -- individually and collectively -- numerous appeals for the entire time they were incarcerated. Mr. Damien died on December 10, 2002, while incarcerated at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. Mr. Sousa served twenty years in jail before being released on parole. Mr. Eastridge served twenty-nine years (including time for a prison assault on a guard) before being released on parole. For reasons fully explained in its earlier opinion, this Court granted the writ of habeas corpus to Messrs. Eastridge and Sousa under 28 U.S.C. § 2241. See Eastridge, 372 F. Supp. 2d at 29. The Court found them innocent of murder as principals and innocent of aiding and abetting. It also determined that the rule imposed by the trial judge regarding cross-examination and introduction of evidence violated their constitutional rights. Finally, it found that the prosecution had failed to release Grand Jury transcripts that contained exculpatory testimony, in violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 87, 10 L.Ed. 2d 215, 813 S.Ct. 1194 (1963). The Court then set aside their convictions. In its decision, the Court commented that "Mr. Damien, a co-petitioner at the time initial briefing was completed, passed away on December 9, 2002. As a result, the habeas record and briefs do not focus on him. Presumably, the same analysis would apply." See Eastridge, 372 F. Supp. 2d at 29 n. 3. The Government filed a notice of appeal of the grant of habeas relief but then withdrew it. See Gov. Notice of Interlocutory Appeal [Dkt. #67] and Dismissal Order [Dkt. #68].

On April 17, 2008, Petitioners filed their Motion for Certificate of Innocence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2513, the Unjust Conviction Act. In order to receive compensation based on an unjust conviction, a petitioner must prove:

(1) His conviction has been reversed or set aside on the ground that he is not guilty of the offense of which he was convicted, or on new trial or rehearing he was found not guilty of such offense, as appears from the record or certificate of the court setting aside or reversing such conviction . . . and

(2) He did not commit any of the acts charged or his acts, deeds, or omissions in connection with such charge constituted no offense against the United States, or any State, Territory or the District of Columbia, and he did not by misconduct or neglect cause or bring about his own prosecution.

28 U.S.C. § 2513(a)(1)&(2). "A petitioner has the burden of proof showing an entitlement to the certificate," while "a district court judge has broad discretion in deciding whether or not to issue such a certificate." Humphrey v. United States, 52 Fed. Cl. 593, 597 (Fed. Cl. 2002), aff'd, 60 Fed. Appx. 292 (Fed. Cir. 2003) (citations omitted).

Ideal justice would seem to require that in the rare and unusual instances in which a person has served the whole or part of a term or imprisonment, is later found to be entirely innocent of the crime of which he was convicted, should receive some redress. On the other hand, reversals in criminal cases are more frequently had on the ground of insufficiency of proof or on the question as to whether the facts charged and proven constituted an offense under some statute. Consequently, it would be necessary to separate from the group of persons whose convictions have been reversed, those few who are in fact innocent of any offense whatever.

Burgess v. United States, 20 Cl. Ct. 701, 704 (Cl. Ct. 1990)

II. ANALYSIS

The United States does not dispute that Petitioners fulfill the requirements of 28 U.S.C. § 2513(a)(1): their convictions were reversed on the ground that they were not guilty of the offense of which they were convicted. It also does not dispute that they "did not commit any of the acts charged," as required by 28 U.S.C. § 2513(a)(2). It concentrates its argument on the last provision of § 2513(a)(2) and argues that both Petitioners, in varying ways, engaged in misconduct that caused or ...


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