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Watkins v. Healy

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

August 12, 2019

LEDURA WATKINS, Plaintiff,
v.
ROBERT H. HEALY, et al., Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER DENYING DEFENDANT ROBERT H. HEALY'S MOTION TO DISMISS (ECF #34)

          MATTHEW F. LEITMAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         In 1976, Plaintiff Ledura Watkins was convicted of first-degree murder in state court and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In 2017, the state trial court vacated Watkins' conviction and released him from custody based on a finding that certain expert testimony admitted against Watkins at trial - asserting that Watkins' hair matched a hair found on the victim - was unreliable. Watkins has now filed this civil-rights action against the City of Detroit and certain individuals involved in his arrest and prosecution, including Defendant Robert H. Healy, a former state-court prosecutor. Watkins alleges that Healy fabricated evidence against him and maliciously prosecuted him. Healy filed a motion to dismiss Watkins' claims on January 25, 2019. (See Mot. to Dismiss, ECF #34.) For the reasons that follow, Healy's motion is DENIED.

         I

         On September 6, 1975, “a Detroit school teacher and reputed drug dealer” named Yvette Ingram “was found shot to death in her home” in Detroit. (Am. Compl. at ¶12, ECF #30 at Pg. ID 7490.) Roughly one month later, the City of Highland Park Police took a man named Travis Herndon into custody on an unrelated offense. (See Id. at ¶15, Pg. ID 7491.) While Herndon was in custody, he “told a Highland Park police officer … that he [Herndon] had information regarding the Ingram murder.” (Id.) Herndon said that Watkins “robbed and killed [] Ingram on the orders of Highland Park police officer[] Gary Vazana.” (Id. at ¶16, Pg. ID 7491.)

         On October 21, 1975, Healy and Neil Schwartz, then a sergeant with the Detroit Police Department, “interrogated [Herndon] at length about the [] Ingram murder.” (Id. at ¶17, Pg. ID 7491.) During that interrogation, Herndon initially provided a different version of events than the version that he recounted to the Highland Park police. Herndon told Healy and Schwartz that he and Watkins, not Watkins alone, killed Ingram on instructions from Vazana. (See Id. at ¶20, Pg. ID 7492.) More specifically, Herndon said that “he and Watkins drove Vazana's car” to Ingram's home and “used Vazana's pistol to kill Ingram.” (Id.)

         At some point during the interrogation, “Healy left the room and [then] returned, passing a note to Schwartz.” (Id. at ¶21, Pg. ID 7492.) Schwartz read the note and then handed it to Herndon. (See id.) “The note indicated that Vazana had been found shot to death in his residence.”[1] (Id.) Healy thereafter left the room a second time “while Schwartz attempted to have Herndon make a tape-recorded statement” that implicated Watkins in Ingram's murder. (Id. at ¶22, Pg. ID 7493.)

         Herndon then changed his story again and offered a third version of events. Herndon “specifically told Schwartz that his earlier statement about [] Watkins' involvement [in Ingram's murder] was not true.” (Id. at ¶23, Pg. ID 7493.) Herndon then said that Vazana, not Watkins, drove Herndon to Ingram's home and that Vazana, not Watkins, shot and killed Ingram. (See id.) Schwartz then left the room to consult with Healy. (See Id. at ¶24, Pg. ID 7493.)

         According to Watkins, “while outside the interrogation room, Healy and Schwartz conspired and agreed to frame [Watkins for Ingram's murder] by fabricating evidence that Herndon and Watkins killed [] Ingram.” (Id.) “When they returned, Healy told Herndon that he and Schwartz wanted [] Watkins for the Ingram murder because they believed he was involved and that [Watkins] likely murdered [] Vazana.” (Id. at ¶25, Pg. ID 7493.) “Herndon again told Healy and Schwartz that Watkins had nothing to do with the murder[] and that Herndon and Vazana [had] killed Ingram.” (Id. at ¶26, Pg. ID 7493.)

         Healy and Schwartz then began to threaten Herndon. They told Herndon “that they would charge [him] with the Ingram murder unless he implicated Watkins.” (Id. at ¶27, Pg. ID 7493-94.) Healy and Schwartz also threatened to charge Herndon with another, unrelated murder if he did not implicate Watkins. (See Id. at ¶28, Pg. ID 7494.) “In the face of these threats …. [Herndon] agreed to testify against Watkins.” (Id. at ¶29, Pg. ID 7494.)

         Schwartz then “took the affirmative step of tape recording a statement from [] Herndon that implicated Watkins in [] Ingram's murder.” (Id. at ¶30, Pg. ID 7494.) In that recording, Herndon said that he and Watkins had killed Ingram “on orders from [] Vazana.” (Id. at ¶30 n.1, Pg. ID 7494.) “Schwartz deliberately chose not to record Herndon's statement that [] Vazana[] murdered [] Ingram[] and that [] Watkins had nothing to do with the murder.” (Id. at ¶33, Pg. ID 7495.)

         “One day after procuring Herndon's made-up statement, Schwartz filed a Warrant Request [for Watkins] with the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office.” (Id. at ¶39, Pg. ID 7496.) Healy was not involved in the decision to seek a warrant for Watkins' arrest. (See Id. at ¶40, Pg. ID 7496-97.) Instead, “Schwartz submitted [the warrant request] to the Prosecutor's Office and swore to facts in support of the warrant.” (Id. at Pg. ID 7497.) Judge John Patrick O'Brien issued the arrest warrant on October 22, 1975. (See id.) Watkins was thereafter arrested for Ingram's murder pursuant to that warrant. (See Id. at ¶44, Pg. ID 7497.) The content of Herndon's incriminating statement was “the sole basis for probable cause for Watkins' arrest.” (Id. at ¶32, Pg. ID 7495; emphasis in original.) At that time, “there was no other evidence linking Watkins to the crime.” (Id.)

         At Watkins' preliminary examination, Healy elicited testimony from Herndon that he and Watkins killed Ingram at Vazana's request. (See Id. at ¶32, Pg. ID 7495.) The state district court then bound Watkins “over for trial based on Herndon's [] testimony.” (Id.)

         Watkins' murder trial began in March of 1976. (See Id. at ¶51, Pg. ID 7498.) Healy again acted as the state-court prosecutor. (See Id. at ¶52, Pg. ID 7499.) At the trial, the prosecution relied on two primary pieces of evidence: (1) Herndon's testimony that he and Watkins killed Ingram (see Id. at ¶¶ 56-64, Pg. ID 7499-7501) and (2) expert testimony from evidence technician Ronald Badaczewski that a hair found on Ingram's pants was “microscopically similar [to]” and “was a match to” Watkins' hair. (Id. at ¶¶ 66-67, Pg. ID 7501.) The hair evidence was “[t]he only physical evidence linking [] Watkins to the scene [of the crime].” (Id. at ¶65, Pg. ID 7501.)

         On March 16, 1976, a jury convicted Watkins of first-degree murder. (See Id. at ¶81, Pg. ID 7504.) The state trial court then sentenced Watkins “to a term of life in prison without the possibility of parole.” (Id. at Pg. ID 7505.)

         Numerous appeals and post-conviction motions for relief from judgment followed. In 1980, during an evidentiary hearing on one of Watkins' motions, Herndon testified that both his tape-recorded statement implicating Watkins and his trial testimony to that effect were false, that Healy and Schwartz had pressured him into implicating Watkins, and that Vazana, not Watkins, murdered Ingram. (See Id. at ¶86, Pg. ID 7505.) The state trial court concluded that Herndon's recantation was not credible, and it denied Watkins' motion. (See 5/21/1981 State-Court Order, ECF #34-26.)

         In 2016, Watkins filed a new motion for relief from judgment in the state trial court. (See Am. Compl., ECF #12 at ¶100, Pg. ID 7510.) In that motion, Watkins challenged the reliability and admissibility of the hair evidence introduced at his trial - the only physical evidence linking him to the Ingram murder. (See id.) The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office then stipulated to the following facts in state court:

• New Federal Bureau of Investigation standards of hair comparison “undermined” the hair analysis offered at Watkins' criminal trial;
• The prosecutor's office could not re-test the hair evidence because “[a]ll evidence pertinent to this case ha[d] been destroyed;”
• The new standards for hair-comparison evidence, and the inability to re-test the hair evidence, “ma[de] a different result probable on retrial;” and
• “Insufficient evidence exist[ed] to retry [Watkins].”

(Id. at ¶101, Pg. ID 7511; see also 6/15/2017, “Stipulated Order Granting [Watkins'] Successive Motion for Relief from Judgment and Dismissing Case without Prejudice, ” ECF #34-49.) After stipulating to these facts, the prosecutor's office “move[d] the [state c]ourt to dismiss the case without prejudice.” (6/15/2017 State-Court Order, ECF #34-49 at Pg. ID 9238.) Based on the parties' stipulated facts and the motion by the prosecutor's office to dismiss the case, the state trial court granted Watkins' motion for relief from judgment, dismissed the murder charge against him without prejudice, and released him from custody. (See id.)

         II

         On December 6, 2017, Watkins filed this civil-rights action against Healy, Schwartz' estate, [2] Badaczewski, and the City of Detroit. (See Compl, ECF #1.) Healy moved to dismiss the claims Watkins brought against him (See Mot., ECF #21), and the Court held a hearing on that motion on October 17, 2018. The Court thereafter entered an order (1) directing Watkins to file an Amended Complaint and (2) terminating Healy's motion to dismiss without prejudice. (See Order, ECF #29.)

         Watkins filed his Amended Complaint on December 12, 2018. (See Am. Compl., ECF #30.) Relevant to the pending motion, Watkins brings the following claims against Healy:

• Fabrication of evidence in violation of the Fourth Amendment (Count I);
• Fabrication of Evidence in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (Count II); .
• Malicious Prosecution in violation of the Fourth Amendment (Count III);
• Civil Conspiracy in violation of the Fourth Amendment (Count VIII);
• Civil Conspiracy in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment (Count IX); and
• Common law Malicious Prosecution (Count XV).

         Healy moved to dismiss Watkins' amended claims against him on January 25, 2019. (See Mot. to Dismiss, ECF #34.) The Court held a hearing on Healy's motion on July 22, 2019.

         III

         Healy moves to dismiss the claims brought against him pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). “To survive a motion to dismiss” under Rule 12(b)(6), “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). A claim is facially plausible when a plaintiff pleads factual content that permits a court to reasonably infer that the defendant is liable for the alleged misconduct. See id. When assessing the sufficiency of a plaintiff's claim, a district court must accept all of a complaint's factual allegations as true. See Ziegler v. IBP Hog Mkt., Inc., 249 F.3d 509, 512 (6th Cir. 2001). “Mere conclusions, ” however, “are not entitled to the assumption of truth. While legal conclusions can provide the complaint's framework, they must be supported by factual allegations.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 664. A plaintiff must therefore provide “more than labels and conclusions, ” or “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action” to survive a motion to dismiss. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556. “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         IV

         Healy moves to dismiss Watkins' Fourth Amendment claims (Counts I, III, and VIII) on several grounds. The Court will address each in turn.

         A

         Healy first argues that Watkins' Fourth Amendment claims are barred by the applicable three-year statute of limitations.[3] (See Mot. to Dismiss, ECF #34 at Pg. ID 7758-63.) In the context of this argument, Healy divides Watkins' Fourth Amendment claims into two separate components: the first seeking damages for allegedly wrongful detention from the date of arrest through the end of Watkins' preliminary examination (the “Arrest Claim”) and the second seeking damages for allegedly wrongful detention from the end of the preliminary examination through Watkins' conviction at trial (the “Pre-Trial Claim”). Healy insists that both of these Fourth Amendment claims accrued long before Watkins filed this action and are therefore time-barred. The Court disagrees.

         1

         Healy contends that the three-year limitations period on Watkins' Arrest Claim began to run in “October 1975” when Watkins was “arraign[ed]” on the arrest “warrant.” (Id. at Pg. ID 7759.) Healy rests this argument largely on the United ...


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