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Jones v. Wetzel

United States District Court, Third Circuit

September 3, 2013

DAMON JONES, Plaintiff,
JOHN E. WETZEL, et al., Defendants.




In May 1983, a jury convicted Plaintiff Damon Jones of first-degree murder in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County. It imposed a sentence of death. On or about April 27, 2007, pursuant to the Pennsylvania Post Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA"), Jones filed a collateral attack on his death sentence. On August 3, 2009, the PCRA Court granted him a resentencing hearing. While awaiting resentencing, he remained in the Capital Case Unit ("CCU"), or what is commonly referred to as "death row."

On June 17, 2012, Plaintiff filed the instant action, requesting injunctive relief that he be removed from death row, and compensatory relief under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985 for alleged violations of his civil rights.[1] (Doc. No. 3.) The Complaint names as Defendants R. Seth Williams, Philadelphia District Attorney (the "District Attorney"), and John and Jane Doe, who are alleged to be affiliated with the District Attorney's office. The Complaint also names as Defendants John Wetzel, the Pennsylvania Secretary of the Department of Corrections, Michael Wenerowicz, Superintendent of the State Correctional Institution at Graterford ("SCIG"), Jay Lane, SCIG Deputy Superintendent, Thomas Bolton, Unit Manager, Gerald Kelly, Unit Counselor, Francis Feild, a Major at SCIG, and Robin Lewis, Department of Corrections Chief Hearing Examiner (collectively "Commonwealth Defendants").[2]

On February 6, 2013, the District Attorney and Commonwealth Defendants filed Motions to Dismiss. (Doc. Nos. 22, 25.) For reasons that follow, the Court will grant both Motions.


In May 1983, a jury convicted Plaintiff of two counts of first-degree murder. (Doc. No. 22 at 3.) In 1987, he was sentenced to death on the murder convictions. (Id at 4.) On May 21, 1992, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed his death sentence. (Id.) After exhausting his appellate remedies, Plaintiff filed a PCRA petition. (Doc. No. 25-1 at 3.) On August 3, 2009, the PCRA Court vacated Plaintiff's death sentence and granted him a resentencing hearing. (Doc. No. 3 at 17.)

After the PCRA Court granted Plaintiff a resentencing hearing, Plaintiff remained in CCU. (Doc. No. 3 at 17.) Plaintiff alleges that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections ("DOC") characterizes a "capital case inmate" as follows:

A Capital Case inmate is defined as follows: Capital Case — And [sic] inmate (1) physically committed to the Department of Corrections under a sentence of Capital Punishment; (2) pending sentencing under a jury recommendation for Capital Punishment; or (3) whose sentence of Capital Punishment has been vacated, but is awaiting re-sentencing where a sentence of Capital Punishment may be re-imposed.

(Id at 9.)

Inmates held in CCU are placed in solitary confinement and allowed four personal visits per month. (Id at 11-13.) During a number of these visits, Plaintiff had the opportunity to meet with his attorney. (Id.) Due to the layout of the visiting rooms used to meet with defense counsel, Plaintiff contends that other visitors, prisoners, and guards could overhear his conversations with counsel. (Id.) Because of the lack of privacy, he was forced to cut short several sessions with his lawyer. (Doc. No. 33 at 52.)

While awaiting resentencing, Plaintiff filed grievances using the DOC internal grievance system. (Doc. No. 9 at 2.) Plaintiff filed grievances with the Commonwealth Defendants from June 2010 to February 2012. (Doc. No. 3 at 8.) Each of Plaintiff's grievances state, generally, that because the PCRA Court vacated his death sentence, he should no longer be held in CCU, but should instead be treated as a pretrial detainee and moved to the general prison population. (Id.)

On June 8, 2010, Defendant Wenerowicz denied one of Plaintiff's grievances, stating, "[Plaintiff ] had been 'received in DOC custody in 1984 for his current offenses, ' and 'per DOC policy' he is 'held in single [cell] status.'" (Doc. No. 3 at 8.) On January 17, 2012, Unit Counselor Gerald Kelly refused Plaintiff's request for a hearing to contest the disposition of his previous grievances. (Doc. No. 9 at 3.)

Plaintiff contends that on or about January 18, 2012 through February 29, 2012, Unit Counselor Gerald Kelly, Unit Manager Thomas Bolton, Deputy Superintendent Jay Lane, and Major Francis Feild all explained to Plaintiff that "there was [sic] no exceptions" for him to be released to general population "due to Capital Case Policy." (Doc. No. 3 at 8.) Defendant Bolton informed Plaintiff to "consult your lawyer" because "until [the records department] receives the Court information nothing will happen." (Id.) Later, Defendants Lane and Feild reiterated the responses of the other Commonwealth Defendants stating, "there was no exception for [plaintiff] to be release [sic] in [general population] 'due to Capital Case policy.'" (Id.)

On March 15, 2012, Defendant Wenerowicz denied Plaintiff's appeal of Defendants Lane and Feild's decision. Defendant Wenerowicz's denial of Plaintiff's appeal contained an excerpt from Section 6.5.8 of the DOC Capital Case Procedures Manual, which states:

In the event that an order is received modifying the sentence of a Capital Case inmate to life imprisonment due to a re-sentencing proceeding held as the result of an appeal or Post Conviction Relief Act, or as the result of a commutation, the facility Records Supervisor must determine whether the order is valid and whether the District Attorney intends to appeal the order. If the District Attorney intends to appeal, the inmate shall not be moved from the Capital Case unit until the appeal is resolved.

(Doc. No. 3 at 8-9.)

On April 17, 2012, Plaintiff filed another grievance, which was denied by Defendant Lewis. (Doc. No. 9 at 3.) Plaintiff alleges that Commonwealth Defendants denied all of his grievances in a perfunctory manner. (Doc. No. 33 at 49.)

As noted above, on June 17, 2013, Plaintiff filed the Complaint against the District Attorney, John and Jane Doe, and Commonwealth Defendants. (Doc. No. 3.) On August 1, 2012, Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint. (Doc. No. 9.) The Complaint and Amended Complaint do not allege clear, organized claims against Defendants. Moreover, Plaintiff's Opposition to Defendants' Motions to Dismiss (Doc. No. 33) alleges additional facts that supplement the allegations initially plead in the Complaint and the Amended Complaint. Despite the imprecision of Plaintiff's claims against Defendants, the Court is obligated to discern the facts alleged in the Complaint, the Amended Complaint, and Plaintiff's Opposition to Defendants' Motions to Dismiss, and to consider them in the light most favorable to Plaintiff.[3]

Considering these filings in this light, Plaintiff appears to allege five Counts[4]: Counts I-IV, civil rights claims arising under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, [5] and in Count V, a conspiracy to violate Plaintiff's civil rights under § 1985.[6]

In Count I, alleging a claim under § 1983 against the District Attorney, Plaintiff argues he was denied a speedy resentencing in violation of his Sixth Amendment rights. (Doc. No. 3 at 17.) He contends the District Attorney "was and is the sole cause for the unreasonable delay in [Plaintiff's sentencing trial."[7] (Id.)

In Count II, alleging a claim under § 1983 against Commonwealth Defendants, Plaintiff asserts he was denied the attorney-client privilege in violation of his First, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. (Doc. No. 3 at 13.) He contends that the lack of privacy in the visitation rooms permitted other people to overhear his private conversations with counsel in violation of his civil rights. (Id.)

In Count III, alleging a claim under § 1983 against Commonwealth Defendants, Plaintiff argues his confinement on death row pending a resentencing hearing is a form of excessive punishment in violation of his Eighth Amendment rights. (Doc. No. 3 at 16.)

In Count IV, alleging a claim under § 1983 against Commonwealth Defendants, Plaintiff asserts he was denied substantive and procedural due process in violation of his Fourteenth Amendment rights. He contends the Commonwealth Defendants denied his grievances regarding his confinement in CCU in a perfunctory manner, which denied him a liberty interest. (Doc. No. 9 at 3.)

In Count V, a claim under § 1985 against all Defendants, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants conspired to "willfully and maliciously . . . subject [P]laintiff to the harsh conditions and/or disabilities of solitary confinement and death row . . . ." (Doc. No. 3 at 16, 19.)

Plaintiff requests that the Court grant him the following relief: (1) vacate his conviction, or remove him from death row to the general prison population; (2) award compensatory damages in excess of $75, 000, plus punitive damages and attorney fees; and (3) rule on the constitutionality of the DOC's policy of holding him on death row while awaiting resentencing, after his initial death sentence was vacated. (Doc. No. 33 at 23-24.)

On December 14, 2012, after the Complaint was filed, the PCRA Court resentenced Plaintiff to life in prison. (Doc. No. 25-1 at 49.) At the resentencing hearing, the court ordered that Plaintiff "was to be taken off death row." (Doc. No. 22 at 4.) On January 17, 2013, Plaintiff was ...

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