AP Photo/Mike Derer
Byron Halsey, right, answers questions outside the Union County courthouse after charges were dropped against him in Elizabeth, N.J., Monday July 9, 2007.
In a strongly worded opinion (pdf), a federal appeals court has ruled a man has every right to sue cops who allegedly coerced him into confessing to gruesome child murders he didn't commit, resulting in him spending 22 years in prison.
The Third Circuit's opinion revives Byron Halsey's lawsuit accusing two cops of violating his Constitutional rights by bullying him into saying he'd tortured and killed two small children. That decision overturns a lower court's decision, which found the police officers had qualified immunity from his lawsuit.
In his decision Thursday, Philadelphia-based Third Circuit Judge Morton Ira Greenberg almost expresses disbelief (pdf) about the way investigating officers treated Halsey, who was 24 at the time of the murders and had just a 6th-grade education.
"Except when an innocent defendant is executed, we hardly can conceive of a worse miscarriage of justice," Greenberg wrote for the Third Circuit.
Here's Morton's heartbreaking summary of Halsey's interrogation in Plainfield, N.J. back in 1985:
The facts underlying this appeal — many of which are undisputed — are hardly believable ... Byron Halsey, a young man with limited education, learned that the two small children for whom he had been caring had been tortured and murdered.
He wanted to help in the investigation of these heinous crimes but found himself isolated in a police interview room, accused of the murders, told he had failed a polygraph examination (that we now know he passed), and confronted with false incriminating evidence.
For a time he maintained his innocence, but, after being interrogated for a period extending over several days, and in a state of great fear, he signed a document purporting to be his confession to the crimes. Subsequently, he was charged, indicted, convicted, and sentenced to prison for two life terms. But his “confession” contained details that the investigators must have inserted because Halsey could not have known them.
And the real killer, though he had a record of sexual assaults, was known to the police, and was an obvious potential suspect as he lived in an apartment next to the one that Halsey, the children, and their mother occupied, avoided arrest despite nervously asking the investigating detectives whether he would be “locked up.”
Halsey, who was convicted of murder in 1988 and given life in prison, began requesting post-conviction DNA testing in 1993, according to the Innocence Project. It wasn't until 2006 that the Innocence Project secured the testing, which ultimately proved his innocence and implicated a man named Clifton Hall in the double murder.
Halsey finally got out of prison after 22 years, much of which he spent in solitary confinement, according to the Innocence Project. Now that the Third Circuit has allowed his case to move forward, there will likely be a trial to determine whether the cops who put him there must pay him damages for allegedly violating his Constitutional rights.
A lawyer for one of the police officers referred us to the city of Plainfield, N.J. for comment.
The city of Plainfield, where the cops worked, is also listed as a defendant in Halsey's complaint, and a lawyer for the city told us that it was considering whether to ask the Third Circuit to reconsider its opinion in what's known as an en banc session.
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