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Williams v. Erie County District Attorney's Office

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

March 14, 2017

CHARLES S. WILLIAMS, Plaintiff
v.
ERIE COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, et al., Defendants

          OPINION AND ORDER [1]

          SUSAN PARADISE BAXTER United States Magistrate Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         A. Relevant Procedural History

         On March 23, 2015, Plaintiff Charles S. Williams, while an inmate incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, [2] initiated this civil rights action by filing a pro se complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Defendants Erie County District Attorney's Office ("Erie County D.A."); John H. Daneri ("Daneri"), Erie County District Attorney and former Erie County public defender appointed to represent Plaintiff at his criminal trial; and Bruce K. Tackett ("Tackett"), a forensic scientist with the Pennsylvania State Police. Plaintiff claims that Defendants violated his Fourteenth Amendment due process and equal protection rights, and his First Amendment right to access the courts, by refusing to perform post-conviction DNA testing and/or to provide him with access to the DNA evidence post-conviction. As relief for his claims, Plaintiff seeks injunctive relief in the form of an order requiring Defendants to preserve and produce to him "any biological or physical material pertinent to Plaintiff's conviction of aggravated assault, aggravated indecent assault, and endangering the welfare of children." (ECF No. 7, Complaint, at p. 14).

         Defendants filed Answers to Plaintiff's complaint [ECF Nos. 18, 19], and the parties subsequently completed discovery. Pending before this Court are motions for summary judgment filed by Defendants Erie County D.A. and Daneri [ECF No. 47], and Defendant Tackett [ECF No. 50], both arguing, inter alia, that no DNA evidence exists and, therefore, there is no justiciable case or controversy at issue for this Court to adjudicate. In response, Plaintiff has filed a memorandum of law in opposition to Defendants' motions [ECF No. 57], as well as a counter-motion for summary judgment [ECF No. 59] asserting that Defendants Erie County D.A. and Daneri "do have possession, control and/or access to the crime-scene DNA evidence in the present case." (ECF No. 59, at ¶ 3). This matter is now ripe for consideration.

         B. Relevant Factual History[3]

         On November 12, 1995, after Plaintiff gave a videotape confession to Erie County police officers, Plaintiff was charged with aggravated assault, aggravated indecent assault, and endangering the welfare of children, in connection with the sexual assault of a minor child.

         Plaintiff entered a guilty plea to the charges on June 10, 1996; however, on June 13, 1996, Plaintiff's court-appointed counsel, Defendant Daneri, filed a motion to withdraw Plaintiff's guilty plea, which was denied by the trial judge. (ECF No. 58, at ¶¶ 2-3). As a result of his guilty plea, Plaintiff was ultimately convicted on all counts and was sentenced to serve 17½ to 35 years of incarceration in a state correctional facility. (ECF No. 47-2, at ¶ 5). The Pennsylvania Superior Court subsequently upheld the convictions on appeal. (Id. at ¶ 6).

         In or around 2000, Plaintiff filed a petition under Pennsylvania's Post Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA") seeking testing of DNA evidence that had allegedly been gathered from the crime scene during the police investigation of the assault he was convicted of committing. (Id. at ¶ 7). The PCRA petition was denied by Erie County Judge Stephanie Domitrovich in 2001, and Judge Domitrovich's decision was affirmed on appeal by the Pennsylvania Superior Court in 2003. (Id. at ¶¶ 8-9). In May 2003, Plaintiff filed a "petition to inspect and test evidence and production of discovery, " once again seeking access to the alleged DNA evidence. This petition was denied by Erie County Judge Ernest J. DeSantis, Jr. on May 29, 2003, and the denial was affirmed by the Pennsylvania Superior Court on April 20, 2004. (Id. at ¶¶ 10-12; ECF No. 52-1, at pp. 17-28).

         On January 27, 2014, Plaintiff filed another motion for DNA testing with the trial court, again seeking access to the physical and biological evidence obtained from the crime scene. (ECF No. 58, at ¶¶ 5, 13; ECF No. 58-1, at pp. 9-12). This motion was also denied by the trial court.

         C. Standards of Review

         1. Summary Judgment

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) provides that summary judgment shall be granted if the “movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Under Rule 56, the district court must enter summary judgment against a party “who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). Summary judgment may be granted when no “reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (19896). “[A] party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of ‘the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, ' which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323 quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56.

         The moving party has the initial burden of proving to the district court the absence of evidence supporting the non-moving party's claims. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 330. See also Andreoli v. Gates, 482 F.3d 641, 647 (3d Cir. 2007); UPMC Health System v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 391 F.3d 497, 502 (3d Cir. 2004). When a non-moving party would have the burden of proof at trial, the moving party has no burden to negate the opponent's claim. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. The moving party need not produce any evidence showing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Id. at 325. “Instead, … the burden on the moving party may be discharged by ‘showing' - that is, pointing out to the district court - that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” Id. After the moving party has satisfied this low burden, the nonmoving party must provide facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial to avoid summary judgment. Id. at 324. “Rule 56(e) permits a proper summary judgment motion to be opposed by any of the kinds of evidentiary materials listed in Rule 56(c), except the mere pleadings themselves.” Id. See also Saldana v. Kmart Corp., 260 ...


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