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Hatchett v. City of Detroit

April 30, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Bernard A. Friedman


This matter is presently before the court on (1) the motion of defendant City of Detroit for summary judgment [docket entry 114] and (2) the motion of defendants Kenneth Williams and Hilton Napoleon for summary judgment [docket entry 115]. Plaintiff has responded and defendants have replied. Pursuant to E.D. Mich. LR7.1(f)(2), the court shall decide these motions without oral argument.


This is a case of "wrongful conviction." In March 1998 plaintiff Nathaniel Hatchett was convicted following a bench trial in Macomb County Circuit Court of carjacking, armed robbery, kidnapping and first degree criminal sexual conduct. He was sentenced to 25 to 40 years in prison. In 2008, after having been incarcerated for over eleven years, Hatchett was released due to the efforts of the Innocence Project at The Thomas M. Cooley Law School. Lawyers at the Innocence Project learned that a DNA test (discussed below), conducted before trial at the prosecutor's request, was not disclosed to the defense. Based in part on the discovery of that DNA test, the Innocence Project persuaded the current Macomb County prosecutor to dismiss the charges against Hatchett and stipulate to his release.

The crimes of which Hatchett was convicted were committed on November 12, 1996, in Sterling Heights, Michigan. The victim, Annett Ventimiglia, finished her shift as a K-Mart cashier at about midnight. As she was getting into her car, she was accosted by a young man who threatened to shoot her if she did slide onto the passenger seat. She complied. The assailant drove the car onto a side street and raped Ventimiglia. After threatening to kill her and her family if she reported the incident, the rapist let Ventimiglia out and he drove off with her car. Ventimiglia immediately called the police and was taken to a hospital, where semen was collected from her vagina and underwear. Three days later, a Detroit police officer, defendant Kenneth Williams, spotted Hatchett and four passengers driving Ventimiglia's car in Detroit. Hatchett was arrested and questioned by Williams and then turned over to Sterling Heights police officers, defendants Richard Van Sice and Jeffrey Plaunt. After several hours of questioning, Hatchett confessed to the crime.

In June 1997, several months before trial, the Michigan State Police crime lab issued a DNA report that concluded the semen collected from Ventimiglia did not belong to Hatchett. This report was disclosed to defense counsel and the court and is not an issue in the present case. In mid-August 1997 the prosecutor, defendant Eric Kaiser, met with Van Sice and the victim. According to Kaiser's affidavit, at this meeting "it was discussed... whether the victim's husband would voluntarily provide a blood sample to determine if his DNA matched the donor of the semen found on the victim's vaginal swab and panties." Kaiser Aff. ¶ 11. The husband's blood sample was sent to the Michigan State Police crime lab for testing. This test, which excluded Ventimiglia's husband as the semen donor, was completed on September 11, 1997. Plaintiff alleges that while both Kaiser and Van Sice received a copy of the report containing these test results, neither plaintiff nor his criminal defense attorney was ever informed of the test or its results.

This DNA test, while not directly exculpatory, nonetheless gained significant importance at Hatchett's trial. Despite knowing the husband was excluded as the semen donor, Kaiser stated during his closing argument that it was unimportant that Hatchett's DNA test results excluded him as the donor because the victim "was only fairly certain that the Defendant ejaculated at all. We're not allowed to speculate or under the rules or statute question the victim as to any other possibilities here. We really can't speculate whether another person, her husband, the Lone Ranger created any vaginal deposits that were eventually tested...." Trial Tr. 250-51 (Macomb County Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 2). In commenting on the DNA test that excluded Hatchett as the semen donor, the trial judge indicated this "certainly presents a possible doubt," but he found it to be outweighed by the other evidence, including Hatchett's confession and the victim's identification of him as the rapist. The judge downplayed the significance of the DNA test "given the multiple explanations that may present for the test results received on this examination" [sic] (Tr. 280). He did not elaborate as to the "multiple explanations." In affirming the conviction, the Michigan Court of Appeals subscribed to Kaiser's theory, which was repeated on appeal by another assistant Macomb County prosecutor, that the semen collected from the victim may have come from her husband:

Defendant additionally contends that his innocence was established by the results of a DNA analysis performed on semen found in the victim's vagina and underpants. However, although DNA analysis of the two identifiable genetic loci on the victim's vaginal swab and four identifiable loci on her underpants established that defendant was not the donor of that material, there are several plausible explanations for these results; for example, the donor might have been the victim's spouse. Furthermore, the victim told the treating nurse that defendant ejaculated "on" her, and she told the treating physician that she was only "fairly certain" that defendant ejaculated at all; therefore, it is altogether possible that defendant's semen would not be found in the victim's vagina or in her underpants.

People v. Hatchett, 2000 WL 33419396, at *2 (Mich. Ct. App. May 19, 2000) (emphasis added). The Michigan Supreme Court denied Hatchett's delayed application for leave to appeal. See People v. Hatchett, 463 Mich. 920 (2000).

In March 2008, lawyers associated with The Thomas M. Cooley Law School Innocence Project filed a motion in Macomb Circuit Court on Hatchett's behalf for a new trial. One of the arguments made in support of this motion was that "the defense, the trial court, and the court of appeals were never made aware of the fact that the victim's husband was also excluded as a donor of the biological material.... If the court of appeals would have had knowledge of Mr. Ventimiglia's exclusion in addition to Mr. Hatchett's exclusion, the reasonable conclusion would have been that Mr. Hatchett should not have been convicted of this crime." Sterling Heights Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. F, pp. 10-11. In his response to this motion, Macomb County prosecutor Eric Smith, who was elected to the office long after Hatchett was convicted, stated:

Significant also was the Assistant prosecutor's statement in closing "We really can't speculate whether another person, her husband, the Lone ranger created any vaginal deposits that were eventually tested." (TR pp 250-251). The record is not clear as to whether the test results excluding the victim's husband as the source of the material from the vaginal swab and the swabs from the clothing of the victim information [sic] was turned over to the defense counsel before trial. Nonetheless, no mention of the husband's exclusion was made by either side, not commented on by the judge.

The People have extensively reviewed the evidence in this case. Conclusions from this review are that it appears, under any reasonable circumstance, that the donor of the biological material is the perpetrator. Although significant time has passed since the original investigation, it further appears that appropriate methods of collection and preservation were utilized so as to ensure as much as possible the validity of the results. Further, that the original court, in its analysis of the DNA evidence at trial, was not presented with the exclusion of the husband at trial. Thus the People cannot reasonably oppose defendant's motion for a new trial....

Pl.'s Resp. to the Macomb County Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 1, pp. 3-4. In April 2008, the Macomb County Circuit Court granted Hatchett's motion, dismissed the charges, and ordered him to be released.

Plaintiff commenced the instant lawsuit in May 2008. He bases this case primarily on two alleged instances of misconduct. First plaintiff alleges that Kaiser and Van Sice deliberately withheld the results of the DNA test of the victim's husband, thereby violating his due process rights. Second he alleges that his confession was coerced by the two Sterling Heights police officers, Van Sice and Plaunt. Hatchett also alleges that these officers, as well as the Detroit police officer, Williams, told him specific details about the abduction and rape so that, after being interrogated for hours by Van Sice and Plaunt, he was able to make a believable, albeit false, "confession" because he knew specific details that were known only to the victim, the perpetrator, and the interrogating police officers. Hatchett claims he initially denied being the perpetrator, but that after several hours of interrogation, first in Detroit and then in Sterling Heights, he eventually succumbed. In this connection it is noteworthy that Hatchett was a 17-year-old high school student at the time with an IQ of only 74. The confession was an important part of the prosecutor's case. In explaining his verdict, the trial judge stated that the confession was "of overwhelming importance" (Tr. 277). And the "strikingly detailed confession" was one of the reasons mentioned by the court of appeals in support of its conclusion that the conviction was based on sufficient evidence. People v. Hatchett, 2000 WL 33419396, at *1.

The defendants in this matter fall into four groups. The "City of Detroit defendants" are the City of Detroit, Detroit police officer Williams, and Detroit police lieutenant Hilton Napoleon, who allegedly "supervised, trained, and directed... Williams[] in the handling of the... investigation and prosecution." Am. Comp. ¶ 15. The "Sterling Heights defendants" are the City of Sterling Heights, Sterling Heights police officers Van Sice and Plaunt, and Sterling Heights police sergeants Michael Reece and Scott Lucas, who allegedly "supervised, trained, and directed... Van Sice and Plaunt[] in the handling of Mr. Hatchett's investigation and prosecution." Id. ¶18. The "Macomb County defendants" are Macomb County and Carl Marlinga, who allegedly "supervised, trained, and directed the assistant prosecuting attorneys in the handling of Mr. Hatchett's investigation and prosecution [and] was an official policymaker for Defendant Macomb County." Id. ¶ 20. While Kaiser was an assistant Macomb County prosecutor at time relevant to this case, he is no longer employed by Macomb County and is represented separately.*fn1

The amended complaint ("AC") asserts the following 15 claims: Count I alleges that defendants Van Sice, Plaunt and Williams violated Hatchett's Fourteenth Amendment due process rights by fabricating his confession (by feeding him details of the crime and coercing him to confess falsely) and by using the confession to convince the prosecutor's office to prosecute. The AC also frames this as a Brady violation on the theory that defendants had a duty to disclose that the confession was false and coerced. This count ...

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