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Hurt v. Wise

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

January 23, 2018

William Hurt, Deadra Hurt, and Andrea Hurt, Plaintiffs-Appellees,
Matthew Wise, et al., Defendants-Appellants.

          Argued November 8, 2017

         Appeals from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Evansville Division. No. 3:14-cv-00092 - Jane Magnus-Stinson, Chief Judge.

          Before Wood, Chief Judge, and Flaum and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.

          WOOD, Chief Judge.

         Andrea, Deadra, and William Hurt were all arrested after their uncle, Marcus Golike, was found dead on the banks of the Ohio River. The arrests came after Deadra and William "confessed" that they, with some help from Andrea, murdered Golike. But one by one, each was absolved. Andrea was never criminally charged. The charges against Deadra were dropped after four months. And while the state prosecuted William, he was not convicted on any charge.

         With the criminal proceedings behind them, Andrea, Deadra, and William filed a civil suit against the officers and detectives involved in their arrests and prosecutions. Their claims focus on the interrogations of Deadra and William, the decisions to arrest all three plaintiffs, and the alleged fabrication of evidence by the police. All defendants filed motions for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. For the most part, the district court denied the motions. The defendants challenge those rulings in this interlocutory appeal. We conclude that with minor exceptions the district court correctly assessed the situation.



         In June 2012 a male body washed up on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River. A state medical examiner's autopsy revealed that the hyoid bone in the neck of the deceased, plus a rib, had been fractured. There were no other visible injuries. She concluded that the injuries were consistent with asphyxia by strangulation.

         Zachary Jones and Matthew Wise of the Kentucky State Police ("KSP") initially took the investigatory reins. They found two items in the front pocket of the man's pants: a letter, enclosed in a plastic bag, from the Social Security Administration addressed to Marcus Golike, and a folded baseball cap. The police soon confirmed that the body was indeed that of Golike, a resident of Evansville, Indiana. At that point the Evansville Police Department ("EPD") and EPD detective Jeff Vantlin assumed primary responsibility for the investigation. Jones and Wise continued to assist.

         The Evansville detectives learned that Golike had last been seen at the home of Debbie Hurt, Golike's foster sister and Andrea's, Deadra's, and William's mother. Vantlin went to Debbie's home, where he spoke separately with Debbie and William. At the time, William was 18 years old.

         Debbie told Vantlin that Golike had been at her house the night before his body was found. She had made dinner for him, but went to bed before he left. She recalled that it was a Saturday night, and that William and Golike had stayed up playing chess. Vantlin next spoke with William, who corroborated the basic facts, but at first said that the events Debbie described had taken place a few days earlier, on Thursday. When confronted with the discrepancy in dates, William agreed that Debbie might have been correct. Vantlin also observed that William's hand was swollen and freshly scratched. William explained that the swelling was the result of having punched a tree, and that he sustained the scratches while scooping ice cream at work. Vantlin later visited the ice cream store where William worked and verified the existence of the exposed rods on which William said he had scraped his hand.

         A week later, Jones, Vantlin, and Wise returned to the Hurts' home, where Jones interviewed William. Jones suspected that William knew more about Golike's death than he was admitting, and so he accused William of not being forthcoming. When asked, William expressed doubts about his ability to pass a polygraph, but he said that he was willing to try.

          The same day, the officers visited Golike's brother and informed him that Golike's body had been found in the river. The brother immediately asked, "Is it verified he was killed, other than jumping off a bridge? Because he has been on that bridge three times before threatening to kill himself." Golike had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and had been released from prison just days before his death. In prison, he had been on suicide watch. It is not clear when the detectives learned of Golike's full psychological history.

         While the officers were interviewing Golike's brother, Debbie called Vantlin and said that Harley Wade, a foster son who had moved in with her not long before, had recently choked her to the point of nearly losing consciousness. She wondered if Harley might be involved in Golike's death. The officers wanted to interrogate Harley, but they dropped that idea when they learned that Harley was a ward of the state and could not be questioned without an attorney present. Instead, they switched their attention back to William and asked Debbie to bring William to the station for questioning.

         Debbie complied with this request. Once William was at the station, Jones and Vantlin took him to an interrogation room, where they read the Miranda warnings and William signed a waiver of his rights. The two officers grilled him for roughly four hours. The interrogation took place in two parts: a one-hour session, punctuated by a 40-minute break, and then a two-and-a-half hour session. The entire interrogation was video-recorded.

         During the first hour, William repeatedly gave a consistent account of what happened the Saturday night before Golike's death. He told the police that after he and Golike played chess, Golike left the house and William never saw him again. But each time, Jones and Vantlin told William that he was a liar. They insisted that they knew William was involved in Golike's death, that they already had enough information to put him in jail, that William was not "telling [Jones and Vantlin] what [they] need to hear, " and that his continuing to tell the same story could not change their minds. All the while, Jones and Vantlin introduced details about the suspected crime. For example, they asked William about what may have happened at the river, whether Golike was wearing a hat, whether Golike had been tied up, whether Harley was the primary culprit, and whether Golike had been choked. William became visibly upset during parts of the interrogation, crying and hitting himself on the head.

         After the break, Jones and Vantlin asked William if he had done any "soul-searching." William said that he had, and he again offered the same account he already had provided several times. Jones and Vantlin brushed it aside, calling William a liar and repeating that he was not telling them "what [they] need to hear." Jones told William that he needed to tell the truth, and he made it clear what he meant by that: "we're [i.e., Jones and Vantlin] the ones that determine if you're lying or not. So far, we've both determined you're lying." Jones added that if William did not tell the "truth, " he faced a fate "worse than prison."

         William eventually broke. He "confessed" that he, Andrea, Deadra, and Harley were responsible for Golike's death. He told Jones and Vantlin that after the chess game, he got in the family van with his siblings. As they drove along, they spotted Golike by the roadside. They stopped and got out of the car, and Harley started joking around with Golike. But Harley got out of control (for unexplained reasons) and started punching and choking Golike. William said that he got a few punches and kicks in as well. They then tied Golike up in bed sheets and put him in the van. Deadra drove to Dress Plaza, Evansville, where they dumped Golike's body into the Ohio River. On the way back from the river, they stopped at the Kangaroo, a convenience store, to buy some snacks using Golike's debit card.

         William's "confession" was replete with easily verified and contemporaneous evidence of inaccuracy and unreliability. When William offered any detail about the death, he prefaced it with phrases such as "I'm drawing clues together, " "the way you're telling me, " "like you were saying, " or "from what you've told me." At other times, he responded to the officers' questions by guessing until they signified that they were satisfied. Finally, at the conclusion of the interrogation, William asked Jones, "Was I getting close to most of the facts of what actually happened?" Jones said he did not know, and William again asked, "Was I close to it?" Instead of following up, Jones left the room.

         Several critical "facts" that William offered were facially impossible. For example, if William's account of where he and his siblings had dumped Golike's body-Dress Plaza-was true, the body would have had to float upstream four to six miles to have arrived at the location where it was found. There was no physical evidence that Golike had been beaten or tied up, and it later turned out that Golike's debit card was not, and could not have been, used at the Kangaroo, because there was only $0.08 in the account at the relevant time.

         William provided only three facts that were even potentially original. Of the three, two could just as easily have been common-sense guesses: which pocket Golike's hat was in when his body was found, and how Harley might have used his thumbs to strangle Golike. The third "fact" is actually nothing of the sort. William at one point said that Golike's hat had been "folded" in Golike's pocket-evidently the right answer-but at other times he says it was "shoved" in the pocket. (We wonder how many teenaged boys observe the difference between folding and shoving.)

         William was arrested following his interrogation. The only source of probable cause to arrest him was the confession, and so everything turns on it. Deadra, who was 19 at the time, was also arrested following William's "confession, " after Jones, Vantlin, Wise, and a now-deceased EPD detective interrogated her the same night. She too was read the Miranda warnings and signed away her rights. Her interrogation lasted nearly two hours and was also recorded.

         Deadra's interrogation followed the same script as William's. Sobbing for much of the time, Deadra denied involvement in Golike's death. She was immediately accused of lying. Wise told her that her story "ain't gonna work." Jones added that William already had implicated her, and he fed her the details of William's "confession." Jones told Deadra that unless she talked, her whole family was going to jail. For Deadra, he envisioned "at least 25 to 50" years "behind bars." He continued that the only way she was going to save anyone in her family was to tell the truth. If she did not, Jones told her, she was "going to hang."

         Deadra struggled to satisfy the officers. She said at one point "I don't know what I'm supposed to tell you." On multiple occasions Vantlin answered that question for her: tell the same story that William did. Like William, Deadra eventually repeated the facts that the detectives had fed her and guessed at answers until she placated them. She finally succeeded in doing so, telling the officers that she drove the van that the siblings used to take Golike to the river. Shortly after "confessing, " however, Deadra appeared ready to back-track. At that point, Jones abruptly ended the interrogation and said, "Now you're starting to recant your story, so what we're going to do is we're going to stop. We've got enough. We're just going to stop the interview. Okay? Because now you're trying to recant your story, trying to add things into it."

         Based on William's and Deadra's interrogations, the detectives also arrested Andrea, who was 16 at the time. She was interrogated, but because all defendants, some in the district court and the rest on appeal, concede that she was arrested prior to her interrogation, her experience is not decisive for any of the issues on appeal. It appears that Harley was also indicted, but the charges against him were dismissed at the same time as those against Deadra. He is not a party to this case.

         After the interrogations, the detectives followed up in a few minor ways. EPD detective Jack Spencer filed a report four days after the sessions with Deadra and William; in it, he claimed to have taken William to identify the location where Golike's body was dumped in the river. William denies that this ever happened. Vantlin looked into Golike's bank statements and learned that the last charge on Golike's debit card was made two days prior to his disappearance. That was when he learned that the balance in the account was a meager $0.08. This information undermined William's "confession" insofar as it revealed that no one (including William) did or even could have used Golike's debit card to make any purchases at the Kangaroo on the night in question. Vantlin also met with the clerk who was working at the store that night. The police summary of the interview says that the clerk confidently identified Andrea and Deadra in a photo array, and that she said Harley and a fourth male (not William) looked familiar. But that summary omitted the most important details. In a declaration submitted to the district court, the clerk said that she also told police that she did not remember any of the identified people having come into the store and that she may have recognized the faces from watching the news. Several months later, EPD officers William Arbaugh and Jason Pagett filed a police report asserting that William had made incriminating statements to them when he was being transported after his interrogation. William says that this too was fabricated.

         Andrea was held for seven days before being released without charges. Deadra and William were both charged with murder, among other crimes. Deadra remained in jail for four months, at which point the state court granted a motion to suppress her "confession" and charges against her were dropped. William stayed in jail for eight months before his trial. The jury did not convict him on a single count.


         Following this series of events, Andrea, Deadra, and William filed a 14-count federal complaint alleging multiple constitutional and state-law violations. The complaint named as defendants Jones and Wise ("the KSP Defendants"), Arbaugh, Pagett, Spencer, and Vantlin ("the EPD Defendants"), and the state medical examiner. Each set of defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, seeking qualified immunity or outright dismissal of the case. The district court granted the state medical examiner's motion in full, and it granted the other defendants' motions on all state-law grounds. The district court also granted summary judgment in favor of those of the individual EPD Defendants and KSP Defendants who were not personally involved in the allegedly unconstitutional conduct. Finally, it found that material factual disputes precluded qualified immunity for most of the Hurts' federal claims. That left the following claims:

• Andrea's, Deadra' s, and William's Fourth Amendment false arrest claims against Jones, ...

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