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Wright v. City of Philadelphia

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

January 17, 2017

CITY OF PHILADELPHIA et al., Defendants


          GENE E.K. PRATTER United States District Judge

         I. Introduction

         Anthony Wright sued the City of Philadelphia and 11 individuals, all of whom were members of the Philadelphia Police Department during the time relevant to this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Pennsylvania state law. This action arises out of the investigation and prosecution that resulted in Mr. Wright's wrongful conviction for a 1991 rape and murder. Mr. Wright alleges that the Defendants, working individually and in concert, fabricated evidence, coerced a false confession, and withheld exculpatory evidence, among other alleged misconduct, all of which led to Mr. Wright's arrest, prosecution, and conviction for a crime he did not commit. After DNA evidence conclusively excluded Mr. Wright as the source of the biological evidence found at the crime scene, Mr. Wright's conviction was vacated. Upon retrial, a jury acquitted Mr. Wright of all charges. Mr. Wright spent 25 years in prison as a result of his wrongful conviction.

         Mr. Wright now brings an eight-count complaint against Defendants for (i) malicious prosecution pursuant to § 1983 (Count 1) and Pennsylvania law (Count 8); (ii) due process violations (Count 2); (iii) violating his right against self-incrimination (Count 3); (iv) civil rights conspiracy (Count 4); (v) failure to intervene (Count 5); (vi) supervisory liability (Count 6); and (vii) municipal liability (Count 7). Defendants have moved to dismiss (i) Counts 2-4 on statute of limitations grounds; (ii) Count 7 for failure to sufficiently plead a Monell claim; and (iii) all claims against Detectives David Baker, Dennis Dusak, and Eugene Wyatt for failure to state a claim. Because the Court concludes that Mr. Wright's claims did not accrue until after the criminal proceedings against him were favorably terminated, and because Mr. Wright has stated plausible claims for relief against the City and Detectives Baker, Dusak, and Wyatt, the Court will deny the motion in its entirety.

         II. Allegations in the Complaint[1]

         On October 18, 1991, 77 year-old Louise Talley was raped and murdered in her North Philadelphia home. While DNA evidence would eventually exonerate Mr. Wright, and conclusively implicate an individual named Ronnie Byrd, Mr. Wright was wrongfully convicted of Ms. Talley's rape and murder and served 25 years in prison.

         Officers Dennis Dusak, Manuel Santiago, and Thomas Burke (the “on-scene Defendants”) were the first officers to arrive at the crime scene. Detective Dusak, as the lead detective, was responsible for overseeing the investigation of Ms. Talley's rape and murder. The on-scene Defendants' initial review of the crime scene revealed (i) that Ms. Talley was stabbed to death with a 12-inch metal knife with an eight-inch blade; (ii) evidence that suggested the crime's perpetrator stole a TV; and (iii) the presence of masculine clothing items, including a black Chicago Bulls shirt, blue jeans with suede material, and Fila sneakers. Detectives Dusak and Santiago prepared detailed reports documenting their examination of the crime scene.

         While investigating the crime scene, the on-scene Defendants learned that an individual named Roland St. James had been seen attempting to sell Ms. Talley's stolen TV. After following this lead, the on-scene Defendants determined that Mr. St. James, as well as a friend of Mr. St. James, John “Buddy” Richardson, had been in possession of Ms. Talley's TV and other items of stolen property. Based on this finding, the on-scene Defendants instructed other police officers to take Messrs. St. James and Richardson into custody. Once in custody, the on-scene Defendants and Detectives James Morton and David Baker discussed details of Ms. Talley's murder learned by the on-scene Defendants with Messrs. St. James and Richardson. After Messrs. St. James and Richardson were provided details of Ms. Talley's rape and murder, Detective Morton took Mr. St. James's formal statement concerning the crime and Detective Baker took Mr. Richardson's formal statement. The detectives never reported their pre-statement discussions with Messrs. St. James and Richardson, including statements made by Messrs. St. James and Richardson by which they incriminated themselves and exculpated Mr. Wright, and the fact that certain detectives provided Messrs. St. James and Richardson with details of the crime. The on-scene Defendants simply reported that neighborhood witnesses, including Messrs. St. James and Richardson, implicated Mr. Wright in Ms. Talley's death. Neither Mr. St. James nor Mr. Richardson were ever charged in connection with Ms. Talley's death or for being in possession of Ms. Talley's stolen property. The police released both individuals after they each implicated Mr. Wright in the crime.

         The following day, Detective Santiago and Sergeant Burke approached Mr. Wright, who had just turned 20 years-old, at his home. The officers asked Mr. Wright if he would accompany them to the police station to discuss a murder in the area, telling Mr. Wright that they would bring him right back. Upon their arrival at the police station, however, Detective Santiago placed Mr. Wright in an interrogation room. Detective Santiago and Sergeant Burke, joined by Detective Martin Devlin (the “interrogating Defendants”), interrogated Mr. Wright for hours, without informing Mr. Wright of his Miranda rights and without recording the deposition by audio or visual means. Detective Devlin, who had not previously taken part in the investigation, was included in the interrogation at the urging of Officers Santiago, Burke, and Dusak for the express purpose of coercing a confession. During the course of the interrogation, the interrogating Defendants accused Mr. Wright of Ms. Talley's murder and falsely claimed that the police had eyewitnesses and physical evidence against him. At no point did the police tell Mr. Wright he was free to leave or that he could call a lawyer. Nor did the police allow Mr. Wright to call his mother, despite his repeated request that he be permitted to do so. Mr. Wright maintained his innocence for hours, repeatedly providing the interrogating Defendants with details of his movements for the previous few days.

         After the interrogating Defendants failed to obtain a confession, the interrogating Defendants handcuffed Mr. Wright to a chair and presented him with a nine-page statement handwritten by Detective Devlin. While this statement contained inculpatory information, Mr. Wright never made any of the statements that the document attributed to him. Rather, the nine-page statement was a narrative of how the Defendants believed the crime occurred and included details meant to match Defendants' theory of the crime. These details included references to the believed cause of death (stabbing), the perceived sexual assault, and assertions that Mr. Wright wore a black Chicago Bulls shirt, blue jeans with suede material, and black Fila sneakers during the crime. The statement also purported to establish that Mr. Wright informed the interrogating Defendants that the clothes he wore when perpetrating the crime were in his bedroom. The statement did not include the fact that Ms. Talley suffered blunt force trauma to the head, a fact that neither the on-scene nor interrogating Defendants were aware of at the time of Mr. Wright's interrogation.

         When Mr. Wright refused to sign the fabricated statement, (i) one of the interrogating defendants threatened to “rip [Mr. Wright's] eyes out” and “skull-f**k” him, unless he confessed to the crime and signed the statement, Compl. ¶ 76; (ii) another interrogating defendant pressed Mr. Wright's neck causing him to fear that he would be choked; and (iii) the interrogating Defendants promised that if Mr. Wright signed the statement, he could go home. Mr. Wright ultimately succumbed to the interrogating Defendants' coercion and signed the statement without even reading the statement's contents. The interrogating Defendants also forced Mr. Wright to sign a Miranda waiver form, despite never informing Mr. Wright of his Miranda rights. The interrogating Defendants falsely reported that Mr. Wright not only waived his Miranda rights, but had provided a detailed and voluntary confession within minutes of the interrogation's commencement, which, according to the interrogating Defendants, Detective Devlin transcribed verbatim from Mr. Wright's responses. The interrogating Defendants never reported Mr. Wright's continued protestations of innocence or the details of any of the statements Mr. Wright actually made.

         That same night, Detective Frank Jastrzembski obtained a warrant to search Mr. Wright's bedroom after Officers Santiago, Devlin, Dusak, and Burke informed him of Mr. Wright's alleged confession. Detective Jastrzembski, along with Detectives Anthony Tomaino and Thomas Augustine (the “search Defendants”) promptly executed the search warrant for Mr. Wright's bedroom and claimed to have found the items of clothing described in Mr. Wright's fabricated confession statement, namely, a black Chicago Bulls shirt, blue jeans with suede material, and black Fila sneakers. While the search Defendants reported to prosecutors and in their official reports that they found these items in Mr. Wright's bedroom, the search Defendants knew that, in actuality, the on-scene Defendants had recovered these items from Ms. Talley's home.

         The day after Mr. Wright's arrest and interrogation, Defendants brought Messrs. St. James and Richardson back to the police station to provide second statements. Detectives Tomaino and Dusak took Mr. St. James's statement and Detective Wyatt took Mr. Richarson's statement. Messrs. St. James and Richardson's statements again implicated Mr. Wright in the crime, but otherwise deviated in material ways from their initial statements. Detectives Tomaino, Dusak, and Wyatt failed to report the entirety of their interaction with Messrs. St. James and Richardson, including failing to report inculpatory statements made by the witnesses, exculpatory statements made concerning Mr. Wright, and details provided to the witnesses to strengthen the credibility of their statements. Defendants, however, were aware that Messrs. St. James and Richardson lacked credibility because both had lengthy histories of criminal behavior and drug abuse and both were connected to the crime in question. Accordingly, in order to ensure approval for Mr. Wright's arrest, the on-scene Defendants located additional teenage witnesses, aged 14 to 16, to implicate Mr. Wright in the crime. Detectives Jastrzembski and Charles Myers took the formal statements of the teenage witnesses without their parents present. Detectives Jastrzembski and Myers reported that the statements were verbatim transcripts of the answers to questions posed to the teenage witnesses. The statements, which were hand-written by the detectives, implicated Mr. Wright in Ms. Talley's rape and murder. Two of the three statements included the false detail that the teenage witnesses saw Mr. Wright wearing a Chicago Bulls shirt or jacket. Two of the three teenage witnesses later testified during post-conviction proceedings that their interrogators had coerced them into implicating Mr. Wright. One of the teenage witnesses testified that his interrogator threatened that he would not see his mother again unless he testified that he saw Mr. Wright enter Ms. Talley's home.

         The Defendants uniformly provided Philadelphia District Attorney's Office prosecutors with false, misleading, and incomplete information in order to obtain approval for Mr. Wright's arrest and prosecution. Prosecutors, unaware of the fabricated confession, witness statements, and evidence, charged Mr. Wright with Ms. Talley's rape and murder. Prosecutors utilized the fabricated confession, witness statements, and evidence to obtain a guilty verdict against Mr. Wright. Mr. Wright was ultimately sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole after the jury split on whether to impose the death penalty.

         After several unsuccessful post-conviction petitions in state court, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted Mr. Wright's request for post-conviction DNA testing. The post-conviction DNA test and investigation revealed that the medical examiner who initially tested Ms. Talley's rape kit swabs for DNA incorrectly determined that the swabs were negative for semen and sperm. When the vaginal and rectal swabs were retested in 2013 and 2014 respectively, the results showed the presence of DNA from a single male donor. The DNA that was found on both swabs conclusively matched Ronnie Byrd, whose DNA was in the FBI's National DNA Index System, and conclusively excluded Mr. Wright as the source of the DNA. As part of the post-conviction investigation, the shirt, jeans, and shoes allegedly “found” in Mr. Wright's bedroom were put through DNA testing that was not available at the time of the initial trial. This additional testing identified Ms. Talley, not Mr. Wright, as the individual who wore the clothing items.

         Based on the new DNA evidence, the District Attorney's Office agreed to vacate Mr. Wright's conviction, but decided to retry Mr. Wright based on the same fabricated confession and evidence that was presented at the initial trial. At the conclusion of the retrial, a jury took less than an hour to acquit Mr. Wright of all charges.

         Mr. Wright commenced this suit on September 20, 2016.

         III. Legal Standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) authorizes testing the legal sufficiency of a complaint. Although Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8 requires only “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ” in order to “give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests, ” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted) (alteration in original), the plaintiff must provide “more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Id. (citation omitted).

         To survive a motion to dismiss, the plaintiff must plead “factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Specifically, “[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level . . . .” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (citations omitted). The question is not whether the claimant will ultimately prevail, but whether the complaint is “sufficient to cross the federal court's threshold.” Skinner v. Switzer, 562 U.S. 521, 529-30 (2011).

         To decide a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the Court may look only to the facts alleged in the complaint and its attachments. See Jordan v. Fox, Rothschild, O'Brien & Frankel, 20 F.3d 1250, 1261 (3d Cir. 1994). The Court may also consider documents that are “integral to or explicitly relied upon in the complaint . . . without converting the motion [to dismiss] into one for summary judgment.” In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1426 (3d Cir. 1997) (citation omitted). The Court must accept as true all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Angelastro v. Prudential-Bache Sec., Inc., 764 F.2d 939, 944 (3d Cir. 1985). Likewise, the Court must accept as true all reasonable ...

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