Second Circuit Holds That Wrongfully-Convicted Man’s Case Against NYPD Officers and NYC Can Go Forward

Case Name: Bellamy v. City of New York, et al.

Date of Opinion: January 29, 2019

Opinion by: Judge Walker (majority); Judge Jacobs (dissent)

Summary:

In May 1994, Kareem Bellamy was arrested and charged with the murder of James Abbott, a man who was fatally stabbed near a phone booth outside of a C-Town Supermarket in Far Rockaway, Queens, New York. A grand jury indicted him, and Bellamy was ultimately convicted of murder in the second degree under N.Y. Penal Law § 125.25(2) (depraved indifference murder) and criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree under N.Y. Penal Law § 265.01(2) following a full trial in November 1995. He was sentenced to 25 years-to-life in prison. The state appellate court affirmed Bellamy’s conviction, and he was denied leave to appeal to the New York Court of Appeals.

In 2007, Bellamy filed a motion to vacate the final judgment on the grounds that new evidence had been discovered which proved his innocence. The new evidence cited by Bellamy included the confession of another individual to the murder and the recanting of a key witness who claimed to have been pressured to testify by Detective John Gillen of the New York City Police Department (“NYPD”). After lengthy post-conviction hearings pertaining to the validity of the evidence and credibility of key witnesses, the court ordered vacatur of Bellamy’s judgment and his release from prison. The Second Department affirmed, leave to appeal to the Court of Appeals was denied, and Bellamy was released from prison. By the time he was released, Bellamy had spent over 14 years in New York state prison.

In March 2012, Bellamy filed a civil action in the district court for the Eastern District of New York under New York state law and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 following the vacatur of his criminal convictions. Bellamy brought claims against investigating Detectives Michael Solomeno and John Gillen of the NYPD (as well as other John Does) and the City of New York (“City”) (together, the “defendants”). He alleged that Detectives Solomeno and Gillen engaged in material misconduct, fabricated inculpatory evidence, and failed to disclose material and exculpatory evidences in violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), thereby depriving Bellamy of his constitutional rights to due process and a fair trial. He further alleged that the City is liable under Monell v. Dep’t of Social Services of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), for due process violations caused by internal policies of the Queens County District Attorney’s office. Specifically, Bellamy alleged that the DA’s office failed to disclose financial benefits received by a key witness as part of an internal policy to shield prosecutors from the benefits given to those in the witness protection program. Moreover, he alleged that the DA was indifferent to the summation misconduct of its prosecutor, as evidenced by the prosecutor’s prejudicial remarks during summation.

The defendants moved for summary judgment, asserting that Bellamy had failed to raise any genuine issue of material face warranting a jury trial. The district court agreed and dismissed the case. In so determining, the court found that no material fact existed as to whether violations of occurred regarding the detectives’ fabrication or withholding of material evidence. The district court also rejected the claims against the City, concluding that the City could not be held liable as a matter of law under Monell for the policies of the DA’s office, and Bellamy did not raise a genuine issue of material fact as to the constitutional violations underlying his Monell claims.

There were two issues before the Second Circuit on appeal. The first issue was whether Bellamy produced sufficient evidence to raise material issues of fact that must be tried to a jury. The second issue before the Court was whether the district court erred in dismissing the Monell claims as a matter of law.

In a 2-1 opinion, the Second Circuit partially vacated the dismissal.  The court held that Bellamy had raised genuine issues of material fact as to some of his claims that the detectives fabricated and withheld exculpatory evidence in violation of Brady. Specifically, the Court found that Bellamy raised issues of fact regarding the detectives’ failure to provide prosecutors with exculpatory and impeaching statements of key witnesses, their alleged fabrication of interviews with witnesses, and fabrication of key statements made by Bellamy in the squad car. On the other hand, the Court also determined that some of the withheld evidence was not material or exculpatory and that its withholding therefore did not violate Brady. The Court thus vacated in part and affirmed in part the dismissal of Bellamy’s claims against the detectives. As to the claims against the City, the Court held that the City may be liable for the policies of the DA’s office, determining that the City is the “proper policymaking authority” for purposes of Bellamy’s Monell claims. Additionally, the Court determined that Bellamy raised genuine issues of material fact as to the constitutional Brady violations of the DA’s office.

The court therefore vacated the dismissal of Bellamy’s claims against the City and remanded to the district court for further proceedings.  Judge Jacobs dissented separately, writing that the summary judgment dismissal should have been affirmed.

Summary by: Amy O’Brien​

 

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