This week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a Baltimore man, James Owens, may proceed with a $15 million lawsuit against the city of Baltimore’s police department and three of its officers for failing to disclose potentially exculpatory evidence. Owens was convicted in 1987 of the rape and homicide of his neighbor, Colleen Williar. He was sentenced to life in prison.
James Owens had his conviction vacated in June 2007 when new DNA evidence ruled him out as the person who raped Colleen Williar. James Owens spent 21 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Owens and his attorneys are suing the Baltimore Police Department for failing to reveal evidence which may have spared him a conviction over two decades ago.
The ruling in Owens’ case is significant since legal precedent has traditionally held only prosecutors have a responsibility to turn over evidence to defense attorneys which may prove the defendant’s innocence. Individual police officers were considered to have qualified immunity when conducting investigations and under no obligation to share evidence with defendants.
James Owens’ attorneys successfully argued that by withholding exculpatory evidence from Owens’ during his trial his civil rights were violated under Section 1983 of the 1871 federal Civil Rights Act. The Act prohibits government employees from violating the constitutional rights of citizens. Owens’ attorneys also argued his right to know about the evidence, citing the landmark case of Brady v. Maryland, which ruled prosecutors must disclose exculpatory evidence which pertains to guilt or punishment of a defendant.
The evidence in question was the knowledge of three Baltimore city police officers. Owens’ attorney argued the officers knew their star witness had told four different versions of his story when he implicated James Owens in the rape and murder of Colleen Williar. The witness, James Thompson, told police Owens gave him the murder weapon and admitted to having sex with Colleen Williar.
During the investigation, Owens’ employer told police Owens was at work when Thompson said the conversation took place. Police withheld this knowledge from Owens’ defense attorneys and thus violated his civil rights, Owens’ attorneys allege. James Owens is suing three Baltimore police officers, the Baltimore Police department, the prosecutor of his case, the mayor and city council of Baltimore.