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Thomas v. City of Philadelphia

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

August 27, 2019

SHAURN THOMAS, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF PHILADELPHIA, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM

          GENE E.K. PRATTER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Shaurn Thomas-the plaintiff[1]-was convicted of the 1990 murder of Domingo Martinez. Twenty-four years later, the plaintiff was exonerated. In 2017, he sued the City of Philadelphia and Martin Devlin and Paul Worrell, the detectives who allegedly fabricated evidence against him.

         All of the defendants now move for summary judgment. First, they argue that the malicious prosecution and fabrication of evidence claims against the detectives must be dismissed because the plaintiffs original convictions were not "favorably terminated," and because the plaintiff has not described evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that the detectives violated the plaintiffs constitutional rights. The defendants also argue that the plaintiffs claims against the City must be dismissed for failing to meet the requirements of Monell v. Dep 't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978). The Court denies the defendants' motion for summary judgment in its entirety.[2]

         Background

         On the morning of November 13, 1990, Domingo Martinez was murdered after making a large cash withdrawal from a North Philadelphia bank. As the 78-year-old drove from the bank to his payday-lending business, another driver side-swiped his car. At least one man emerged from the initiating car, shot Mr. Martinez, pulled him from his car, and left him to die in the street. The killer drove away in Mr. Martinez's car, followed by the assailing car.

         The case was investigated by Detectives Devlin and Worrell of the Philadelphia Police Department. Four years later, two pairs of brothers were convicted for the murder: the plaintiff and Mustafa Thomas, along with John Stallworth and William Stallworth. The plaintiff was 16 years old at the time of the Martinez murder.

         At the plaintiffs trial in 1994, the Stallworth brothers testified that they, the Thomas brothers, and two other individuals planned the murder at the Abbotsford Homes housing project. They testified that they coordinated the attack on Mr. Martinez in two separate cars, one gray and one blue.

         I. The Investigation

         A. Evidence from Mr. Martinez's Car

Following the murder, the police recovered Mr. Martinez's car. An officer not involved in this lawsuit took photos of the car and recovered a "sample of white paint" "from the left front fender." Ex. 26 to Plaintiffs Counterstatement of Facts ¶ 16:11-26:14.[3] The officer did not find any blue paint on the victim's car. Id. at 18:6-19:10. [4] The color of the paint is important because John Stallworth later testified that the assailing car was blue.

         B. Eyewitness Reports

         Four people witnessed the murder of Mr. Martinez. All four eyewitnesses stated that the assailing car was a Chevrolet Nova or a Buick Skylark. See Plaintiffs Exs. 4, 6, 22, and 23. One stated that the assailing car was gray, and the others reported that it was red and white. See Id. None said anything about a blue car. See Id. All agreed that the shooter was about six feet tall. See Id. All agreed that there were no more than three assailants. See id.

         The detectives did not follow up with the eyewitnesses after taking their initial statements.

         C. Oliver Walthour and the Chevy Nova Traffic Stop

         Three days after the Martinez murder, Philadelphia police officers stopped a gray Chevrolet Nova six blocks from the crime scene. See Plaintiffs Ex. 35. Three men-Oliver Walthour, Lloyd Hicks, and Bobby Harris-were in the car, and the officers recovered a gun from the vehicle. See Plaintiffs Ex. 36. Detectives Devlin and Worrell interrogated the three men, and all three admitted that they knew-or at least knew of-Mr. Martinez. See Plaintiffs Exs. 37, 38, and 39.

         Mr. Walthour told the detectives that the gray Nova belonged to Mr. Hicks. See Plaintiffs Ex. 35. Mr. Walthour suggested that Mr. Hicks' cousin-John Lewis-may have murdered Mr. Martinez because Mr. Lewis had access to the car and because, the day after the murder, he saw Mr. Lewis "flashing around a lot of money." See Id. Mr. Walthour told the detectives that he asked Mr. Lewis where he got the money, and Mr. Lewis said that he "robbed this old Puerto Rican guy between 7th and Tioga and Sedgley." See Id. Mr. Walthour also told the detectives that Mr. Lewis told him that "they followed [the Puerto Rican man] in a car and they hit the dude's car." Id.

         Mr. Walthour later told Detective Devlin that his original statement was false. See Plaintiffs Ex. 37. Mr. Walthour claimed that he blamed Mr. Lewis for the murder because he was afraid Detective Devlin was going to charge him [Mr. Walthour] for the murder and that he only knew facts about the murder because his uncle told him. See Plaintiffs Exs. 37, 40.

         Four months later, three men robbed and murdered a store owner-Rene Cardona-two blocks from the scene of Mr. Martinez's murder. On April 5, 1991, Mr. Walthour confessed to participating in the robbery and murder of Mr. Cardona. See Plaintiffs Ex. 51.

         Sometime before May 1, 1991, the Police Department's Homicide Division conducted "a review of incidents similar to the Martinez murder." See Plaintiffs Ex. 54. During this review, the Homicide Division identified Mr. Cardona's murder as a crime having "some similarities" to the Martinez murder. Id. Therefore, on May 1, 1991, Detective Devlin interrogated Mr. Walthour again. See Id. This time, Mr. Walthour told Detective Devlin a different story, claiming that he heard "Shawn" and "T-Bop" from "7th and Butler" killed Mr. Martinez.[5] Plaintiffs Ex. 55.

         Detectives Devlin and Worrell did nothing with this information. Plaintiffs Ex. 20 at 43:6-44:1; 151:22-155:20.[6]

         D. Nathaniel Stallworth 's First Statement

         On February 8, 1992, two detectives not involved in this lawsuit interrogated Nathaniel Stallworth, John and William Stallworths' cousin. See Plaintiffs Ex. 75. Nathaniel Stallworth told these detectives that the plaintiff, Mustafa Thomas, John Stallworth, and William Stallworth participated in the robbery/murder of Mr. Martinez. Id. Nathaniel Stallworth also stated that two friends of Mustafa Thomas who he did not know participated in the crime. Id. After being shown photographs by detectives, Nathaniel Stallworth identified an individual named Raynard Hardy as one of the participants. Id.

         E. John Stallworth's First Statement

         On October 27, 1992, Detectives Devlin and Worrell interrogated John Stallworth. See Plaintiffs Ex. 81. John Stallworth told the detectives that he, the plaintiff, Mustafa Thomas, William Stallworth, and two other individuals-"Nasir" and Louis Gay-followed Mr. Martinez from the bank in two cars (one blue and one gray), and that the plaintiff blocked Mr. Martinez's route of escape while Mustafa Thomas shot and robbed Mr. Martinez. Id.

         Detectives Devlin and Worrell soon learned that Mr. Gay could not have participated in the crime because he was incarcerated on the day of the murder. See Plaintiffs Ex. 7 at 75:4-8; Plaintiffs Ex. 83.

         In a sworn declaration, John Stallworth now claims that, during the October 1992 interrogation, he was handcuffed to a metal chair and repeatedly questioned about the Martinez murder. Plaintiffs Ex. 80. He claims that the detectives told him that they knew he was not the shooter, that they really wanted Mustafa Thomas, and that he would be free to leave as soon as he told the detectives what they wanted to hear. Id. John Stallworth further claims that the detectives hit him with a phone book and squeezed his testicles. Id. He claims that he told the officers what they wanted to hear to end the abuse and that he had no personal knowledge about the Martinez murder. Id.

         F. Nathaniel Stallworth 's Second Statement

         After John Stallworth named "Nasir" and Mr. Gay as participants in the murder, Detectives Devlin and Worrell interrogated Nathaniel Stallworth again. Nathaniel Stallworth changed his story. This time, he stated that Raynard Hardy-who he positively identified as a participant of the crime in his initial interview- "could [have been] one of the guys in the cars" who participated in the murder and added that "Nas"-who he did not previously identify-was a participant. Plaintiffs Ex. 88.

         G. Detectives Devlin and Worrell Learn that the Plaintiff May Have Appeared at the Youth Study Center on the Morning of the Martinez Murder

         In November 1992, the detectives learned that the plaintiff had been arrested and charged with attempted theft of a motorcycle the day before the Martinez murder. See Plaintiffs Ex. 19 at 193:10-18; Plaintiffs Ex. 90. The detectives gained access to the plaintiff s juvenile file and found and photographed a subpoena issued by the Youth Study Center that was purportedly signed by the plaintiff on the day of the murder. Plaintiffs Ex. 95. The detectives did not conduct any investigation of this potential alibi.

         H. Nathaniel Stallworth Recants His Previous Statements

         At John Stallworth's preliminary hearing for the Martinez murder in December 1992, Nathaniel Stallworth recanted his previous statements. See Plaintiffs Ex. 76 at 8-30. He testified that the first group of detectives told him that they would let him out of jail to see his girlfriend deliver a baby if he told them what they wanted to hear. Id. at 29-30.

         I. The Harry James Murder

         In December 1992, Harry James, an elderly business man, was robbed and murdered at his speakeasy. In January 1993, Christopher Dinwiddie, an eyewitness, told Detective Jeff Pirree that he observed the plaintiff stand "in the vestibule [of the speakeasy] with a long shotgun" while the plaintiffs father robbed and murdered Mr. James. Ex. 10 to Defendants' Mot. Sum. J. In February 1993, Mr. Dinwiddie again told Detective Pirree that the plaintiff "stood inside by the front door with the shotgun" while the plaintiffs father robbed and murdered Mr. James. See Ex. 12 to Defendants' Mot. Sum. J.

         Thereafter, an arrest warrant was issued for the plaintiff in connection to the James murder. Ex. 14 to Defendants' Mot. Sum. J. The plaintiff turned himself in two days later. See Ex. 16 to Defendants' Mot. Sum. J.

         In March 1993, at the plaintiffs preliminary hearing for the James murder, a different eyewitness testified that the plaintiff was not at the speakeasy when Mr. James was killed. Plaintiffs Ex. 97 at 16-18. Mr. Dinwiddie also recanted his previous statements and testified that the plaintiff was not at the speakeasy that night. Id. at 71.[7] Detectives Devlin and Worrell attended this hearing. See Plaintiffs Ex. 99.

         J. John Stallworth 's Second Statement

         On July 6, 1993, John Stallworth pleaded guilty to third-degree murder for his claimed involvement in the robbery and murder of Mr. Martinez and agreed to testify against the plaintiff, Mustafa Thomas, and William Stallworth to avoid the death penalty. See Plaintiffs Ex. 80. He gave a second statement to Detectives Devlin and Worrell in which he eliminated Mr. Gay from the story and instead claimed that an unknown man participated in the murder of Mr. Martinez. Plaintiffs Ex. 101.

         K. The Detectives Submit an Affidavit of Probable Cause for the Plaintiff's Arrest

         On July 27, 1993, the detectives submitted an affidavit of probable cause for the plaintiffs arrest for the Martinez murder. Plaintiffs Ex. 104. The only information in the affidavit connecting the plaintiff to the murder was:

• John Stallworth's first statement in which he claimed that six people, including the plaintiff, Mustafa Thomas, John Stallworth, and William Stallworth, murdered Mr. Martinez; and
• Nathaniel Stallworth's identification of the plaintiff, Mustafa Thomas, John Stallworth, and William Stallworth as participants in the murder.

See Id. The detectives omitted from their affidavit the following information:

• Nathaniel Stallworth gave two conflicting statements and then later recanted both statements during John Stallworth's preliminary hearing;
• John Stallworth's original statement included at least one lie, that Mr. Gay-who was in prison at the time-participated in the murder;
• Contrary to John Stallworth's story, none of the four eyewitnesses saw two cars, a blue car, or six participants in the murder;
• Police officers found white, not blue, paint on Mr. Martinez's car;
• Evidence indicating that the plaintiff may have been at the Youth Study Center at the time of the murder; and
• Information concerning Mr. Walthour and the traffic stop of the gray Chevy Nova.

See id.

         L. William Stallworth's Guilty Plea

         Thereafter, the detectives arrested William Stallworth for the Martinez murder. William Stallworth pleaded guilty and made a statement to the police, confirming John Stallworth's second statement. See Plaintiffs Ex. 107. He stated that he, John Stallworth, the plaintiff, Mustafa Thomas, Nasir, and an unknown man drove in two cars, one blue and one gray, to rob and murder Mr. Martinez. Id.

         In a sworn declaration, William Stallworth now many years later claims that he was coerced into providing false testimony by the detectives. See Plaintiffs Ex. 106. He claims that he falsely testified because he knew he would likely be convicted of murder either way, and because the detectives told him he would get a deal if he agreed to tell the same story as John Stallworth. Id. He further claims that the detectives told him that if he did not agree, John Stallworth was not going to get his deal and would face the death penalty. Id.[8]

         II. The Trial

         In December 1994, the plaintiff was convicted of second-degree murder, among other offenses, for his alleged involvement in the robbery and murder of Mr. Martinez. Plaintiffs Ex. 109 at 20. The only witnesses who connected the plaintiff to the murder were John and William Stallworth. There was no forensic evidence linking Shaurn Thomas to the murder of Mr. Martinez.

         III. The CRU Vacates the Plaintiffs Conviction and Decides Not to Retry the Case

         In January 2017, BJ Graham-Rubin and Andrew Wellbrock, Assistant District Attorneys in the Conviction Review Unit ("CRU"), began to investigate the plaintiffs claim of innocence.

         Ms. Graham-Rubin investigated the plaintiffs Youth Study Center alibi. After reviewing documents and speaking to employees at the Center, she concluded that the plaintiff "most likely" had his intake interview at the Center on the morning of November 13, 1990. Plaintiffs Ex. 17 at 6.

         In April 2017, Ms. Graham-Rubin and Mr. Wellbrock interviewed William Stallworth. See Plaintiffs Ex. 113. William Stallworth told them that he was not involved in the murder and that he did not believe that the plaintiff was either. Id. Mr. Wellbrock believed William Stallworth, but Ms. Graham-Rubin did not. Plaintiffs Ex.*57 at 94:9-13.

         In May 2017, the CRU received the homicide file for the Martinez murder. Mr. Wellbrock discovered the statements from Messrs. Walthour, Hicks, and Harris. Plaintiffs Ex. 57 at 65:15-66:13. Mr. Wellbrock concluded that these statements were significant because "it was information that discussed alternate suspects that were identified contemporaneously with the murder" and "the alternate suspect was driving a car that fit the description of the eyewitness." Id. at 66:9-17.

         Based on this information, the CRU and the Acting District Attorney, Kathleen Martin, decided to vacate and dismiss the case against the plaintiff. Mr. Wellbrock memorialized the rationale underlying their decision in a memo dated May 11, 2017:

Based on our review and investigation, sufficient evidence exists to undermine confidence in the conviction and creates a basis for relief in the interest of justice. Based on the evidence, we do not believe sufficient evidence exists to prove [the plaintiff] guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. As such, the CRU recommends agreeing to a new trial and moving to nolle prosequi the charges.

         Plaintiffs Ex. 98 at 5. The memo reaffirmed that "it is most likely that [the plaintiff] appeared in Juvenile Court for an intake interview on the morning of November 13th, 1990." Id. at 3. Ms. Graham-Rubin and Ms. Martin both reviewed and approved Mr. Wellbrock's memo. Id. at 5.

         On May 23, 2017, the plaintiff was released from prison after 24 years of incarceration. Plaintiffs Ex. 115. On June 13, 2017, Ms. Graham-Rubin appeared in front of Judge Rose Marie DeFino-Nastasi and stated the reasons for dismissing the plaintiffs case:

[A]fter reviewing further investigation, the District Attorney's Office Conviction Review Unit has determined that it is most likely that [the plaintiff] was, in fact, at the Youth Study Center sometime during the morning of November 13, 1990. However, the evidence does not establish an absolute alibi. So, therefore, the Conviction Review Unit cannot determine [the plaintiffs] actual innocence. Furthermore, there has been a recent recantation by one of the witnesses who testified, William Stallworth.
In his recantation, [William Stallworth] recanted his trial testimony, but his recantation also does not actually exculpate [the plaintiff]. Mr. Stallworth now claims that he was not present at the time of the crime and, therefore, he does not know, he has no firsthand knowledge of who was or was not a participant in the crime.
Although [William Stallworth] states he believes [the plaintiff] wasn't there, he states now he has no actual knowledge of who participated because he wasn't there and, finally, as to the statements from Oliver Walthour, these statements were the statements that were not provided to the District Attorney's Office or to the Defense at the time of trial but on their face, they are both potentially exculpatory and inculpatory. So they too do not establish any innocence.
However, under present case law, the Conviction Review Unit believes that these statements are discoverable under Brady and, accordingly, [the plaintiff] would be entitled to a new trial. So that is why we recommended vacating the [plaintiffs] conviction and as this Court knows at this time, the District Attorney's Office is ...

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