Second Circuit: Forensic Examiner Not Entitled to Qualified Immunity
- August 27, 2021
In a significant qualified immunity ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit denied a state ballistics examiner’s motion to dismiss a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights lawsuit.
ECBAWM client Vernon Horn was incarcerated for over 17 years for a crime he did not commit. His wrongful conviction stemmed from exculpatory evidence that was concealed before and during trial: New Haven Police detectives hid phone records in the basement of a detective’s house because they did not support the case against Horn, and the Connecticut State Police ballistics examiner failed to disclose that he prepared a second ballistics report that falsely implicated Mr. Horn because the original report would have exonerated him.
Following their release from prison in 2018, Mr. Horn and his co-defendant Marquis Jackson brought civil actions against the City of New Haven and certain law enforcement officials for violating their constitutional due process rights under Brady v. Maryland.
The state ballistics examiner, James Stephenson, filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuits against him on the grounds that he is entitled to (a) qualified immunity for failing to turn over exculpatory evidence and (b) absolute immunity for preparing the second false ballistics report because he did so at the prosecutor’s direction. The U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut denied Stephenson’s motion to dismiss and he appealed to the Second Circuit.
In upholding the lower court’s ruling and denying Stephenson’s motion to dismiss, the Second Circuit wrote that “no reasonable forensic examiner in Stephenson’s position” would have concluded that Brady did not apply. The Court also concluded, “The allegations here are consistent with [Horn’s] theory that Stephenson independently decided to manipulate the margin of error upon learning that the memo … would weaken the state’s case against [Horn].”