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Williams v. Hepting

filed as amended may 24 1988.: April 18, 1988.


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, D.C. Civil No. 86-1715.

Weis,*fn* Greenberg and Aldisert Circuit Judges.

Author: Aldisert


ALDISERT, Circuit Judge.

In this appeal from the dismissal of a civil rights suit brought by a prisoner, the major question for decision is whether a witness who testifies at a preliminary hearing is entitled to absolute immunity from a subsequent civil rights suit for damages based on allegedly perjured testimony given at those proceedings. We must also decide whether the district court properly abstained from adjudicating certain civil rights claims which, in essence, seek to attack the validity of a state court conviction, while an appeal of that conviction remains pending in state court.


On the evening of August 5, 1984, Archie S. Bradley was shot to death at the Norsub Trucking Company parking lot in Cranberry Township, Butler County, Pennsylvania. An investigation ensued, resulting in the indictment of Ronald A. Williams and Raymond Williams for first degree murder. On January 24, 1985, a Butler County Common Pleas jury found Ronald Williams and Raymond Williams guilty of first degree murder, and subsequently sentenced them to death. Pursuant to 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 722(4), 9711(h), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court took an automatic review of both Raymond and Ronald Williams' convictions and death sentences. The court affirmed Raymond Williams' conviction, but overturned his death penalty sentence. Pennsylvania v. Raymond Williams, 514 Pa. 62, 522 A.2d 1058 (1987). The court has not yet ruled on Ronald Williams' appeal, but instead has remanded the case to the Butler County Court of Common Pleas for further evidentiary hearings.

On August 13, 1986, Ronald Williams, now a prisoner incarcerated in a state facility, filed this civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, 1983, 1985, 1986, and 1988. His pro se complaint set forth a web of constitutional offenses linked to the alleged failure to properly investigate his case, falsification and concealment of evidence, subornation and commission of perjury, and clandestine tampering with members of the jury. As relief, Williams sought compensatory and punitive damages.


Williams alleged that his constitutional rights were violated by a Butler County assistant district attorney, five Cranberry Township police officers, a prosecution witness, and two members of a Butler County jury during the course of the state criminal investigation and prosecution that resulted in his first degree murder conviction and death sentence. He also alleged that David Hepting -- a Butler County assistant district attorney -- conspired with defendants Scarfo, Widdowson, Schueler, Hartman, and Lewis -- Cranberry Township police officers -- to "create" the necessary evidence to sustain a murder case against Williams.

Williams said that the defendants conspired against him because he was an ex-felon, black, and believed by the defendants to be guilty. In furtherance of the conspiracy, Hepting, Scarfo, Widdowson, and Schueler allegedly convinced defendant Robert Stewart to falsely identify Williams as the driver of a car that police chased from the scene of the murder on August 5, 1985, and to falsely testify at Williams' preliminary and suppression hearings and trial.

Williams alleged that Hepting and the police officers suppressed exculpatory evidence from their investigation, namely, a handwritten note that related to the scene of the murder. Defendants Hepting, Schueler, Widdowson, and Scarfo, who retained possession of the note as well as samples of Williams' handwriting, allegedly knew that the note handwriting differed from his writing exemplar and that Williams, therefore, could not have prepared the note. Williams charged that the defendants ceased investigating this line of inquiry to deprive him of exculpatory evidence.

He also charged Hepting with concealing evidence about the handwriting exemplars at trial and subsequently stating that the samples and police reports concerning the handwriting investigation did not exist. After Williams' trial, however, Hepting produced the exemplars and reports by order of court. Finally, Williams claimed that Hepting secretly informed defendants Archer and Bowser, two jurors at trial, of Williams' past criminal record in order to prejudice the jury's verdict and obtain a conviction. Archer and Bowser allegedly informed the remaining jurors of Williams' past criminal record prior to the verdict and, according to the plaintiff, persuaded the jury to find Williams guilty. [Text Deleted by Court Emendation]


The defendants responded to Williams' complaint by filing a Rule 12(b)(6), F.R. Civ. P., motion to dismiss. The district court, adopting the recommendations of the magistrate, granted defendants' motion. The district court determined that prosecutorial immunity applied to Williams' allegations against Hepting, and that witness immunity applied to Williams' allegations against Stewart for his testimony at plaintiff's pretrial hearings and trial.

The court, however, dismissed two claims without prejudice, enabling Williams to refile those claims in federal court after first pursuing them in state court: (1) Williams' allegation that Hepting, Schueler, Scarfo, and Widdowson deliberately failed to investigate an aspect of plaintiff's case because of his race; and (2) his contention that Schueler, Scarfo, and Widdowson induced witness Stewart to falsely identify Williams by arranging a suggestive encounter between the defendant and Stewart shortly before Williams' preliminary hearing.

In ruling on defendants' 12(b)(6) motion, the district court denied Williams' request to file an amended complaint. Williams appeals from the ...

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