7th Circuit reversal: Damages claims brought by exonerated man may proceed

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An exonerated man whose murder conviction was vacated nearly a decade ago can continue seeking damages against the investigators in his case, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled, reversing a lower court’s decision that the claims couldn’t stand.

In 1993, two individuals in Anderson shot into a car occupied by several people, killing the driver and seriously injuring the front seat passenger. Walter Goudy was convicted of the murder, even though eyewitness descriptions of Goudy did not match up with those of the shooter.  

Certain evidence favorable to Goudy’s case was never disclosed to the jury during his trial, including three police reports that revealed information that several witnesses identified a different man, Kaidi Harvell, as the shooter on the driver’s side of the car out of a photo lineup. The jury also didn’t hear a video-recorded confession by Romeo Lee, Goudy’s “lookalike” brother, who was there at the time of the shooting and ultimately confessed to being one of the shooters, alongside Harvell.

Goudy petitioned for post-conviction relief in the state courts in vain, arguing the state failed to comply with Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), obligations. A 7th Circuit panel reversed the denial of his petition for habeas corpus and found him entitled to relief in 2010, concluding the Indiana Court of Appeals’ decision on Goudy’s Brady claims involved an “unreasonable application of clearly established federal law.”

In that decision, 7th Circuit Judge William Bauer then wrote that the COA unreasonably required Goudy to show that the suppressed evidence would establish his innocence. Goudy’s conviction was vacated, and he was released after serving nearly 16 years in prison.

The exonerated man then sought damages against the investigators of his case for the time he spent behind bars, alleging now-Madison County Prosecutor Rodney Cummings and Detective Steve Napier, who investigated the case, deprived him of due process in violation of the 14th Amendment.

Specifically, Goudy argued the investigators subjected him to an improper show-up procedure, withheld a recording of witnesses identifying a different person as the shooter in a lineup, and withheld interview notes showing that Harvell initially had denied any involvement in the murder, but later switched his story.

Senior Judge Sarah Evans Barker of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana awarded summary judgment in favor of the investigators on all aspects of the case, finding “no evidence” that Cummings intentionally concealed the videotape from prosecutors; that the notes were not suppressed or material for Brady purposes, and; that the improper identification procedure could not support either investigator’s liability.

But Barker has also sanctioned two attorneys for withholding documents from Goudy's attorneys.

The 7th Circuit found Barker’s summary judgment decision to be premature in a Wednesday decision. It thus reversed the lower court’s ruling, finding Goudy had presented enough evidence to advance his arguments that the investigators suppressed lineup videotape and interview notes.

On the videotape claim, the 7th Circuit found that the jury could conclude Cummings’ concealment was the cause of the prosecutors’ failure to find and disclose the video due to the unexplained retention of the video for 14 months; the return of the video on the same date that the judge definitively blocked defense counsel from seeing the police reports describing it, and; the trial prosecutor’s “still N/A” note.

It also found that Cummings’ follow‐up interview with Harvell did nothing to change its conclusion on the interview note issue, and that a reasonable jury could decide that Napier’s notes from the initial interview were suppressed.

 “Even if it was not purposefully misleading, Cummings’s reference to the earlier interview was cryptic enough that a diligent defense representative might have determined there was nothing to see in the notes of that initial interview, or that notes of that previous interview may not exist,” Chief Judge Diane Wood wrote for the unanimous panel. “Goudy’s counsel cannot be criticized for failing to guess that Harvell’s initial statement was more substantive than Cummings let on.”

Looking at Goudy’s overarching claim that he was constitutionally injured by the investigators, the 7th Circuit concluded all defendants who can be shown to have suppressed evidence in violation of Brady should be liable for the aggregate impact on the outcome of Goudy’s trial.  

“Goudy has presented enough to go to trial on his allegations that Cummings and Napier violated his due process right to a fair trial. We need not and do not address his allegation that the allegedly improper one‐man ‘showup’ procedure independently constituted a basis for liability,” the panel wrote.  

“On remand, the district court is free to consider this issue afresh; evidence of the showup procedure may prove to be relevant at trial as Goudy seeks to hold the defendants liable for his constitutional injury.”

The 7th Circuit further noted that the investigators could not use qualified immunity to avoid liability in Walter Goudy v. Rodney J. Cummings, et al., 17-3665.

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