Officers must defend their conduct before a juryClarence Elkins served many years in jail, convicted of a rape and murder that he did not commit. Through his own efforts, the efforts of his attorneys, and a series of coincidences, Elkins was able to secure his own release after he was able to secure and preserve DNA from the victim's neighbor--after the neighbor was incarcerated for a different crime. That DNA confirmed the neighbor's guilt and corroborated a very incriminating statement the neighbor had made to police while the rape/murder was being investigated.
Elkins sued the investigating detectives after he learned that the earlier incriminating statement by the neighbor had been memorialized and provided to the detectives by the officer who overheard it, but never turned over by them to prosecutors or Elkins' attorneys. [Under the so-called Brady decision, the state owes a duty to alert Defense counsel to the existence of exculpatory evidence.]
The officers argued that they should be entitled to governmental immunity for any liability arising out of the Brady violation that may have resulted in Elkins' conviction. To be entitled to this form of limited immunity, however, the officers must demonstrate that they did not violate a constitutional right that was "sufficiently clear [so] that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violate[d] that right."
The Sixth Circuit noted that the evidence against Elkins was skimpy in the first case and strongly contradicted by other evidence. Further, there was other evidence pointing to the neighbor as a possible perpetrator. Despite these circumstances, the investigating detectives not only failed to handle the incriminating memorandum arising out of the neighbor's arrest properly, they also actively intimidated witnesses who supported Elkins' alibi.
Taking these matters into account, the Court determined that the officers would be required to defend their actions before a jury; they were not entitled to immunity as a matter of law.