People’s Law Office attorneys have won a landmark wrongful conviction case in the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. PLO represented William Avery in a wrongful conviction case in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and obtained a substantial jury verdict to compensate Avery for the 6 years he was wrongfully imprisoned. Avery was convicted of a murder that DNA testing later showed had been committed by a serial murderer, Walter Ellis. Avery then filed suit against the police officers who made up evidence against him—including a confession they falsely claimed Avery had given them and statements from so-called jailhouse snitches claiming Avery had admitted the murder to them.
At the jury trial in Milwaukee, PLO attorneys were able to establish that the “confession” was totally fabricated by detectives and that Avery had consistently asserted that he was innocent. Also, prisoners who previously claimed that Avery had admitted to the murder told the civil jury they had told the detectives that this was not true, and that Avery had made no such admissions. Although the detectives claimed they did nothing wrong they were significantly impeached during cross-examination and the jury believed Avery over them, and returned a verdict in his favor. But the trial judge, citing “mixed signals” from the court of appeals, took away the verdict and entered judgment for the defendants.
But in the appeal, Avery and PLO prevailed. The appeals court held that Avery’s claims of fabrication of evidence “fall comfortably within our decision in Whitlock v. Brueggemann, 682 F.3d 567 (7th Cir. 2012) [another People’s Law Office case], so the jury’s verdict was legally sound and must be reinstated in its entirety.” In a unanimous opinion, authored by Judge Diane Sykes, the court, again citing Whitlock, held that “We have consistently held that a police officer who manufactures false evidence against a criminal defendant violates due process if that evidence is later used to deprive the defendant of [his] liberty in some way.” While to most of us it seems obvious that police officers who make up evidence that causes a wrongful conviction have violated the person’s constitutional rights, many trial level courts, like the district court here, have held that such plaintiffs could not sue under federal law, and were limited to pursuing remedies, often totally inadequate, under state law. The Avery decision decisively rejected this reasoning and will be extensively cited by other plaintiffs pursuing wrongful conviction claims. You can read the full text of the opinion here.
The case now goes back to the trial court in Milwaukee where PLO will immediately have the jury’s judgment for Mr. Avery reinstated and will then move for attorneys’ fees in addition to the jury verdict. In this way PLO will seek to have Mr. Avery receive the full amount of the jury award, without any reductions for attorney’s fees. This case is the latest in a long line where PLO has been able to obtain jury verdicts for wrongfully convicted clients and then defend the verdict on appeal, often obtaining groundbreaking decisions that increase the rights of civilians, obtain monetary compensation for the injured person, and ensure that police who intentionally violate the U.S. Constitution are held accountable for their egregious misconduct.