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Horn v. City of New Haven

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

July 9, 2019

VERNON HORN, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF NEW HAVEN, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER DENYING DEFENDANT JAMES STEPHENSON'S MOTION TO DISMISS

          Jeffrey Alker Meyer United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Vernon Horn spent more than 17 years in prison following a jury trial and his conviction in Connecticut state court on charges stemming from a robbery and murder at a convenience store in 1999. After an intensive post-conviction investigation exposed exculpatory evidence, a Connecticut state court vacated his convictions last year. Horn in turn has filed this federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of New Haven and various law enforcement officials. He alleges that they all took actions that led to his wrongful conviction and imprisonment.

         Now before me is a motion to dismiss by one of the defendants-James Stephenson- who testified as a ballistics expert at Horn's criminal trial. Horn alleges that Stephenson violated his constitutional right to due process under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), when he failed to disclose two reports that related to his examination of the evidence. For the reasons stated below, I conclude that Horn has alleged a plausible Brady claim against Stephenson and that Stephenson is not entitled at the present time and on the present record to a grant of absolute or qualified immunity from Horn's claim. Accordingly, I will deny Stephenson's motion to dismiss.[1]

         Background

         The following facts are set forth as alleged in the complaint. In the early morning hours of January 24, 1999, three armed men robbed a convenience store in New Haven, Connecticut. Doc. #1 at 8-9 (¶¶ 41-50). One of the robbers shot and killed a store customer, and the store's co-owner was also shot but survived. Id. at 7-8 (¶¶ 37-42).

         The complaint goes on to detail how three New Haven detectives wrongly focused their investigation on Horn as a suspect and how they induced witnesses to wrongly implicate Horn as a participant in the crime while also concealing exculpatory evidence. The complaint additionally names Stephenson as a defendant, alleging that he was a firearms examiner employed by the Connecticut State Police Forensic Science Laboratory. Id. at 3 (¶ 12). Because only Stephenson has filed a motion to dismiss, I will focus my discussion on facts that relate to Horn's claim against Stephenson.

         The Connecticut State Police Laboratory's primary function is to examine physical evidence to determine if a crime was committed or was connected to a particular person. Id. at 28 (¶ 158). Soon after the robbery, the New Haven police sent shell casings and bullet fragments from the crime scene to the laboratory where Stephenson examined them and produced a report on February 4, 1999. Id. at 28 (¶ 159); see also Doc. #40-3. This initial report stated that the bullets and fragments were consistent with the use of a nine millimeter firearm and then listed seriatim the names of eight different companies, stating that the bullets “may have been fired but not limited to” a firearm manufactured by one of these companies. Id. at 28 (¶ 160); Doc. #40-3 at 3 (¶ 14). This non-exhaustive list of possible company manufacturers did not include Beretta, notwithstanding the fact that the prosecution's key cooperating witness-Steve Brown-would eventually tell the police and then allegedly falsely testify at trial that Horn used a Beretta to shoot his victims during the robbery. Doc. #1 at 27-28 (¶¶ 155, 160).

         Stephenson's initial report was disclosed to the defense. Id. at 28 (¶ 161). But it was based in part on a more detailed General Rifling Characteristics report (GRC report) that Stephenson generated and failed to give to the prosecution or the defense. Id. at 28-29 (¶¶ 161-164); Doc. #40-5. The GRC report contained the same list of possible manufacturers as Stephenson's initial report and also reflected a margin of error with respect to the rifling characteristics of 2. Doc. #1 at 28 (¶ 163); Doc. #40-5 at 3.[2]

         According to the complaint, the prosecutor realized about a year later as he was preparing for trial in early 2000 that he had a problem: “His star witness said the murder weapon was a Beretta. But his forensic examiner's report did not list a Beretta as even as possible murder weapon.” Id. at 29 (¶ 165). So the prosecutor called Stephenson “shortly before the start of jury selection, ” and he asked “whether it was possible the murder weapon could have been a Beretta.” Id. at 29 (¶ 166).

         Following this conversation, Stephenson generated a new GRC report on February 15, 2000, by “manipulating the report to increase the margin of error to 4.” Ibid. (¶ 167); Doc. #40-6. With this larger margin of error, three models of 9mm firearms manufactured by Beretta were now added to the list as a potential match for the shell casings and bullet fragments from the crime scene. Doc. #1 at 29 (¶ 168); Doc. #40-6 at 2.

         According to the complaint, Stephenson “manipulated his findings by changing the margin of error, ” and “[t]his manipulation allowed the report to include a make of murder weapon not supported by his findings, and thereby made those findings fit the testimony of the State's key witness.” Id. at 30 (¶ 171). Moreover, as with the first GRC report, Stephenson did not give the second GRC report to the prosecution, and the report was not disclosed to the defense before trial. Ibid. (¶ 169).

         Horn alleges that Stephenson eventually testified at trial that, “based upon ‘new information' he got from” the prosecutor, “he had concluded that the murder weapon could have been a Beretta.” Ibid. (¶ 170). The defense did not know how or why Stephenson had changed his conclusion, because the defense had not received the two GRC reports. Ibid. (¶ 172). Moreover, Stephenson falsely testified that he had not created any new reports when he got the new information from the prosecutor. Ibid. (¶ 173).

         Horn claimed all throughout that he was innocent but was convicted at trial and sentenced to a term of 70 years in prison. Id. at 33-34 (¶¶ 184-85). Not until February 2018 did Horn learn of the two non-disclosed GRC reports when they were produced in response to a subpoena. Id. at 30 (¶ 175). Following an intensive re-investigation of the case by Horn's counsel, his convictions were vacated in April 2018 after he had served more than 17 years in prison. Id. at 2 (¶¶ 3-4), 42-42 (¶¶ 235-37).

         In this lawsuit, Horn alleges that Stephenson failed to disclose the two GRC reports and that these reports were materially exculpatory and withheld by Stephenson in violation of Horn's constitutional due process rights under Brady v. Maryland. Stephenson has responded by moving to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). Stephenson argues that Horn has ...


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