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Anderson v. City of Rockford

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

July 25, 2019

Tyjuan Anderson, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants,
City of Rockford, et al., Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued May 14, 2019

          Appeals from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Western Division. Nos. 3:15-cv-50065 & 3:15-cv-50064 - Frederick J. Kapala, Judge.

          Before Flaum, Kanne, and Scudder, Circuit Judges.


         Nowhere does the Constitution's promise of due process mean more than in a criminal trial. This promise translates into an obligation when police and prosecutors find themselves in possession of information that exculpates a criminal defendant. That is the cornerstone of the Supreme Court's 1963 decision in Brady v. Maryland, and this case presents serious and unresolved questions whether certain detectives in Rockford, Illinois, failed to adhere to their Brady obligations when prosecuting three men for the murder of eight-year-old Demarcus Hanson on April 14, 2002. One of those detectives has since admitted-under oath no less-to engaging in serious misconduct during the investigation.

         In 2013 an Illinois court found a Brady violation as part of vacating the murder convictions of Tyjuan Anderson, Lumont Johnson, and Anthony Ross after each man served more than a decade in prison. The case entered federal court when Anderson, Johnson, and Ross then brought claims for money damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law against the City of Rockford and a score of individual defendants. The district court granted summary judgment on all claims in favor of all defendants. We reverse. While the case entails many complexities, Anderson, Johnson, and Ross have brought forth sufficient evidence to move forward against particular defendants on particular aspects of their alleged due process violations.


         Demarcus Hanson was killed by shots fired into his grandmother's Rockford home. The State successfully prosecuted Tyjuan Anderson, Lumont Johnson, and Anthony Ross for the murder and each received a 50-year sentence. The men spent more than a decade in prison before an Illinois court ordered a new trial based on the delayed disclosure of Brady material-specifically, the recorded jail calls of the prosecution's key witness in which he contradicted his trial testimony. Anderson, Johnson, and Ross were retried and acquitted. They then turned to federal court by filing this lawsuit against the City of Rockford and multiple Rockford police officers alleging that the defendant officers violated their rights under the U.S. Constitution and Illinois law by not only withholding the recorded jail calls and other exculpatory information, but also by fabricating evidence leading to their convictions for a crime they insist they did not commit.

         A. The Murder and Investigation

         At approximately 2:51 a.m. on April 14, 2002, someone fired shots into Estelle Dowthard's home. One of the bullets struck and killed her eight-year-old grandson Demarcus Hanson as he was sleeping in his bed. Responding officers from the Rockford Police Department soon learned that Estelle's son, Alex Dowthard, was likely the shooter's intended target. Dowthard would come to play a substantial role in the investigation and, ultimately, the plaintiffs' trials and convictions.

         Detectives Doug Palmer and Joseph Stevens-both defendants in this case-led the investigation. Within hours of the shooting, Palmer and another detective, defendant James Randall, interviewed Dowthard, who denied any knowledge about his nephew's murder. Dowthard told the detectives that, in the hours before the murder, he had a verbal altercation with Anderson, Johnson, and Ross near the M Market in Rockford and he shot at the trio as they drove in a white Suburban. Dowthard explained that he then drove to his mother's home and hid his gun under a car parked outside. He insisted, however, that he was not present when shots were later fired at his mother's house and therefore did not know who killed his nephew.

         The police used Dowthard's admission that he possessed a gun (and shot at the plaintiffs) to detain him on a parole violation. A few weeks later, on May 2, Detectives Palmer and Stevens again sought to speak with Dowthard, this time at Big Muddy River Correctional Center, where he was incarcerated on the parole violation. And Dowthard again denied any knowledge about his nephew's murder. During this visit, Detective Stevens also requested copies of Dowthard's jail calls to assist with the investigation. Less than two weeks later, undoubtedly to increase the pressure on Dowthard to cooperate, the State resurrected an old set of forgery allegations (dating to February 2002) that had gone uncharged. The new charges provided a second basis to revoke Dowthard's parole.

         Rockford police met with Dowthard a third time on May 31, 2002. This time Dowthard, who was still incarcerated for the parole violation, agreed to talk, but only if detectives agreed to inform the parole board of his cooperation. He then provided Sergeant Gregory Lindmark and defendant Detective Theo Glover a written statement claiming, for the first time, that he was present when his nephew was shot. Despite his initial denials, Dowthard now claimed he saw three individuals-Anderson, Johnson, and Ross-exit a red car with guns and then, as he was fleeing, heard shots fired toward his mother's house. He told the police that he initially denied seeing the shooters because he thought he could handle the matter himself. Later that summer, Dowthard repeated this story before the grand jury, and on July 31, the State dismissed his forgery charge.

         Detectives Stevens and Palmer also interviewed Lataurean Brown, who was with Dowthard in the hours before the murder. While Brown would eventually become an important prosecution witness, during his initial interview on April 24, he denied knowing who shot at the Dowthard home. But he admitted to seeing Alex Dowthard fire shots at the plaintiffs' Suburban earlier that night. He also told police that he drove Dowthard to his mother's house, where Dowthard hid his gun under a car. The two men then drove to the Concord Commons, where Brown saw and spoke to his cousin Rickedda Young. A few weeks later, Detectives Stevens and Palmer interviewed Brown a second time. By the end of the ten-hour interview, Brown changed his account and signed a written statement claiming Anderson, Johnson, and Ross were responsible for Hanson's death.

         In April 2002, and following up on the information provided by Brown, the police spoke with Rickedda Young. Young told Detectives Stevens and Scott Mastroinanni (also a defendant in this case) that she saw and spoke to Brown and Dowthard at the Concord Commons during the early morning hours of April 14. She stated that Dowthard and Brown told her that someone had just fired shots at them as they fled Dowthard's mother's house, but they did not know who. Neither Stevens nor Mastroinanni documented or disclosed this fact-that immediately after the shooting, the State's key witnesses told a family member they did not see the shooter-in the subsequent prosecution of Anderson, Johnson, and Ross.

         The Rockford police also investigated but ultimately excluded two other possible suspects, Kefentse Taylor and Casel Montgomery, before arresting the three plaintiffs (Anderson, Johnson, and Ross) for Demarcus Hanson's murder.

         B. Criminal Trials

         Anderson and Johnson proceeded to trial in October 2002. The Thursday before trial was to begin, the prosecution received more than 40 hours of Alex Dowthard's recorded jail calls from the Rockford police. The tapes, which were made available to the plaintiffs' then-defense attorneys the following afternoon, included Dowthard's conversations with family and friends while he was incarcerated for the parole violation in May 2002. The conversations predated Dowthard's May 31 written statement in which he first implicated the plaintiffs. Given the length and poor quality of the recordings, the attorneys for the plaintiffs (then defendants) requested a continuance for more time to listen to all of them and to determine whether they contained exculpatory or otherwise useful defense evidence. The trial court denied the request and proceeded with jury selection, affording the attorneys for Anderson and Johnson only a couple of days to review the recordings.

         With no physical or forensic evidence connecting the plaintiffs to the crime, the prosecution's case rested on the testimony of Alex Dowthard and Lautaurean Brown. Dowthard testified consistent with his May 31 written statement implicating the plaintiffs, though he offered a different explanation for his evolving account of the murder. Recall that in his written statement Dowthard claimed that he initially lied to the police (by denying knowledge of who shot Hanson) because he thought he could handle the situation himself. At trial, however, Dowthard testified that during his first two interviews he told detectives he did not witness the murder because he was on parole and telling the police the true and full account of what happened during the early morning hours of April 14 would mean admitting that he had a gun and thus admitting to a parole violation. (This explanation made little sense because Dowthard admitted to possessing a gun during his first interview with police just hours after the murder, which resulted in a parole violation.)

         Dowthard further testified that he eventually cooperated with police without receiving anything in return. During cross-examination, however, he conceded that following his testimony in the grand jury, the State dropped his unrelated forgery charge, sent a letter to the parole board relaying this information, and decided not to charge him for the shots he fired at the plaintiffs just before Hanson's murder. Neither party introduced or otherwise used any aspect of Dowthard's jail calls at Anderson and Johnson's trial.

         Lautaurean Brown also testified for the prosecution and, like Dowthard, pointed the finger at the plaintiffs, though he denied seeing anyone carrying a gun.

         As for the defense case, Anderson and Johnson presented alibi witnesses and argued that two other individuals, Kefentse Taylor and Casel Montgomery, were the actual shooters. The jury found Anderson and Johnson guilty of murder, and the trial court later sentenced each of them to 50 years' imprisonment.

         The third plaintiff, Anthony Ross, proceeded to trial in 2004. Brown and Dowthard again testified for the prosecution and echoed the accounts provided in the trial of Johnson and Anderson. The jury also heard from Ross's cousin, Sonya White, who claimed she was with Ross when he tossed the murder weapon into a lake and confessed to killing Hanson. Ross then testified in his own defense and denied any involvement in the murder while also presenting an alibi witness. The jury returned a guilty verdict, and, as with Johnson and Anderson, Ross received a sentence of 50 years.

         C. Post-conviction Proceedings

         Following unsuccessful direct appeals, all three plaintiffs filed petitions for post-conviction relief in which they asserted their innocence and alleged, as they do here, that the officers investigating Demarcus Hanson's murder committed numerous Brady violations. They also alleged that the defendant officers engaged in misconduct by coercing witnesses and fabricating evidence. In support of their claim, the plaintiffs submitted an affidavit by Detective Palmer-the lead investigator-in which Palmer admitted that he threatened witnesses, falsified witness statements, neutralized exculpatory evidence, and instructed witnesses to offer testimony he believed was false.

         The trial court reacted to Detective Palmer's admissions of misconduct by holding an evidentiary hearing on the plaintiffs' petitions for post-conviction relief. The court heard testimony from Palmer and approximately 34 other witnesses. Palmer's testimony focused on three topics: the circumstances surrounding his resignation from the Rockford Police Department in 2004, his own wrongdoing during the Hanson murder investigation, and his belief that Anderson, Johnson, and Ross did not commit the murder. We need focus only on the testimony regarding police misconduct.

         Palmer admitted at length and in substantial detail that he threatened and coerced witnesses to give statements and encouraged witnesses to provide false testimony during the plaintiffs' criminal trials. He described, for example, how he had instructed the two key prosecution witnesses- Dowthard and Brown-to testify consistently with their written statements implicating the plaintiffs even though he believed those statements were false. He also explained how he falsified a statement from a man named Bryce Croft and then compelled Croft to sign the statement.

         The details matter. According to Palmer, in the summer of 2002 and before the plaintiffs' trials, Bryce Croft, then an inmate at Winnebago County Jail, requested to see him and, during the meeting that followed, provided detailed information implicating an alternative suspect, Casel Montgomery, in Hanson's murder. Palmer testified that instead of pursuing this lead against Montgomery, he took a deliberate step to prevent Croft's statement from being of any use to the plaintiffs during their criminal trials. He told the court that he did so at the direction of his supervisor, testifying that "Sergeant Lindmark told me to make a liar out of Bryce Croft." Palmer explained that, upon receiving this instruction, he met a second time with Croft and, during that meeting, forced Croft to sign a pre-wrirten and false statement recanting his original statement. The plaintiffs went to trial knowing none of the circumstances surrounding Croft's second statement or that his recantation was false.

         Croft, too, testified at the evidentiary hearing and corroborated much of Detective Palmer's account. He explained that he met with Palmer in July 2002 to provide information about Casel Montgomery's role in the murder. After doing so, though, Palmer returned a few months later and, as Croft recounted, threatened him with perjury charges if he did not recant his original statement implicating Montgomery. Croft recalled that Palmer brought with him a pre-wrirten statement and, as part of leveling a threat of prosecution, demanded Croft sign it. Croft explained that he signed the second statement-even though he knew it was false-because of Palmer's threats.

         The plaintiffs also called Alex Dowthard as a witness, but he asserted his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and did not testify.

         As part of assessing the plaintiffs' Brady claims, the trial court also considered statements Dowthard made during telephone calls from jail in May 2002. It was undisputed that these recorded conversations, which totaled approximately 40 hours, were not made available to the attorneys for Anderson, Johnson, and Ross until Friday, October ...

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