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Yarris v. County fo Delaware

October 2, 2006

NICHOLAS YARRIS
v.
COUNTY OF DELAWARE; BARRY GROSS, ESQUIRE; WILLIAM H. RYAN, JR.; DENNIS MCANDREWS, ESQUIRE; OFFICE OF DISTRICT ATTORNEY OF DELAWARE COUNTY; CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION DIVISION, RANDOLPH MARTIN, CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION DIVISION, OFFICE OF THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY DELAWARE COUNTY; DAVID PFEIFER, CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION DIVISION, OFFICE OF THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY DELAWARE COUNTY; CLIFTON MINSHALL, CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION DIVISION, OFFICE OF THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY DELAWARE COUNTY; CRAIG SITI, INVESTIGATOR, CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION DIVISION, OFFICE OF THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY DELAWARE COUNTY, APPELLANTS



On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (D.C. No. 04-cv-03804). District Judge: Honorable Juan R. Sánchez.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Fuentes, Circuit Judge

PRECEDENTIAL

Argued April 24, 2006

Before: FUENTES, STAPLETON, and ALARCÓN,*fn1 Circuit Judges.

OPINION OF THE COURT

Nicholas Yarris claims he spent twenty-two years on death row for a kidnaping, rape, and murder he did not commit because Delaware County, its prosecutors, and its detectives obscured and destroyed evidence pointing to the actual killer, manufactured evidence against him, and thwarted his demands for DNA testing. After Yarris's conviction was overturned and the charges against him were dropped, he filed this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging violations of his rights under the United States Constitution and Pennsylvania law. The prosecutors and detectives moved to dismiss Yarris's claims on the basis of absolute and qualified immunity. The District Court denied the motion to dismiss in part, and this appeal followed. We are asked to determine whether the District Court properly concluded that the prosecutors and detectives are not entitled to immunity from any of Yarris's claims. For the reasons that follow, we will affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings.

I. Background

A. Factual Background*fn2

In 1981, Yarris was arrested and charged with attempted murder after assaulting a police officer during a traffic stop. Yarris was subsequently placed in solitary confinement in a Delaware County prison. Yarris was addicted to methamphetamine at the time of his arrest, and he began suffering from "cold turkey" withdrawal.

While in prison, Yarris learned from a newspaper of the unsolved kidnaping, rape, and murder of Linda Mae Craig, which took place four days before Yarris's arrest. In an effort to bargain for release from prison, Yarris told Delaware County detectives Randolph Martin ("Martin") and David Pfeifer ("Pfeifer") that he had information about the Craig murder. He told the detectives that a fellow drug addict had admitted to raping and murdering Craig, but that the addict had since died from a drug overdose. In fact, Yarris was wrong and it was the addict's brother who had died from an overdose. After determining that Yarris's information was incorrect, Martin and Pfeifer returned Yarris to solitary confinement and told him that unless he came up with a better story they would think he had raped and murdered Craig.

After a failed suicide attempt and a brief hospital stay, Yarris was again returned to solitary confinement. Yarris claims that he was placed in a freezing cell with broken windows, without any clothes, sheets, or blankets. Seeking a transfer to a different cell, Yarris offered to share more information about the Craig murder with a prison guard. According to the prison guard, Yarris said that he raped Craig, but that another man murdered her. The day after Yarris's conversation with the guard, Yarris was charged with kidnaping, robbing, raping, and murdering Craig.

Before proceeding to trial for the Craig murder, Yarris was tried and acquitted for the crime for which he was initially arrested and jailed-the attempted murder of a police officer. After the verdict, the prosecutor assigned to the case, assistant district attorney Barry Gross ("Gross"), allegedly slammed his case file against the courtroom wall, screamed at Yarris, "Motherfucker, you'll never leave the county alive!" and spat in Yarris's face.

Yarris subsequently went to trial for the Craig murder, with Gross prosecuting the case. At trial, the prosecution introduced into evidence a photograph of the bloody interior of the victim's car, which showed a pair of men's leather gloves inside the vehicle. The prosecution had never informed Yarris that the gloves existed and, according to Yarris, had determined that the gloves were too small to fit Yarris. Nonetheless, the prosecution led the jury to infer that Yarris's fingerprints were not found in the vehicle because he wore the gloves. In addition to two witnesses who testified that they observed Yarris stalking the victim, the prosecution presented the testimony of Charles Catalino, a jailhouse informant who stated that Yarris confessed his guilt while the two were detained in adjacent cells at the Delaware County prison. Yarris claims the informant testified against him in exchange for a reduced sentence and visits with his wife. On July 1, 1982, the jury found Yarris guilty on all counts and returned a verdict recommending imposition of the death penalty. Yarris was formally sentenced to death on January 24, 1983. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court eventually affirmed Yarris's conviction and sentence in October of 1988.

In March of 1988, Yarris requested testing of the physical evidence recovered from the crime scene using newly developed DNA testing techniques. He was initially informed by the District Attorney's office that all of the relevant evidence had been destroyed, except for two stained slides. The slides were tested, but in August of 1988 the laboratory rejected them as being of insufficient quantity for DNA testing.

After reviewing the transcripts of his criminal trial, Yarris discovered the existence of two additional slides. Yarris contacted the District Attorney's office and assistant district attorney Dennis McAndrews sent two detectives to retrieve the evidence and transport it to the coroner and then to the laboratory. According to Yarris, detectives Pfeifer and John Davidson*fn3 never delivered the slides to the coroner; instead, they kept the slides in a paper bag under a detective's desk where the slides eventually rotted and were rendered useless for DNA testing. In 1989, additional evidence in the form of the victim's clothing was discovered. Yarris successfully petitioned for DNA testing of this evidence in November of 1989, but the results were inconclusive.

Beginning in 1989, Yarris began to request that evidence be tested again, this time using a newer and more accurate type of DNA testing known as PCR-enhanced DNA testing. The District Attorney eventually agreed to additional testing of the evidence in September 1992, but only if the testing was conducted by the Alabama Department of Forensic Science, which Yarris alleges was not competent in PCR-enhanced DNA testing. The test results were inconclusive.

Yarris eventually sought habeas relief from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. In April of 2003, PCR-enhanced DNA testing was performed on the gloves found in the victim's car, and the results indicated that Yarris was not the "habitual user" of the gloves. PCR-enhanced DNA testing was then performed on semen stains found on the victim's clothing, and the results indicated that the sample did not come from Yarris, but did come from two unknown males, one of whom was the "habitual user" of the gloves. PCR-enhanced DNA testing was then done on scrapings found under the victim's fingernails, which revealed that the scrapings were from the "habitual user" of the gloves.

In light of the new evidence, on August 19, 2003, the district court ordered that Yarris be granted a new trial within two weeks, or that Yarris be set free. On August 26, 2003, the District Attorney's office and Yarris's counsel filed a joint petition in the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas requesting that the conviction be vacated. The court vacated Yarris's conviction and sentence on September 3, 2003. After receiving a ninety-day extension to consider whether to re-prosecute Yarris, the District Attorney dropped all charges against Yarris on December 9, 2003. Yarris was released from prison on January 16, 2004.

B. Procedural Background

Yarris commenced this action in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on August 11, 2004. In his complaint, Yarris named as defendants the County of Delaware; the Office of the District Attorney of Delaware County; the Criminal Investigation Division of the Office of the District Attorney of Delaware County; Assistant District Attorneys Barry Gross, Dennis McAndrews, and William H. Ryan, Jr.; and Criminal Investigation Division Detectives Randolph Martin, Clifton Minshall, David Pfeifer, and Craig Siti. Yarris later filed an Amended Complaint, which contains two causes of action arising out of Yarris's arrest and conviction for murder in 1982: the first for federal constitutional claims, and the second for claims under Pennsylvania law.

The ADAs and CID Detectives moved, pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, to dismiss the Amended Complaint on the basis of, among other things, absolute and qualified immunity. The District Court granted the motion as to Yarris's Fifth Amendment claim against all defendants, and Yarris's claims against Minshall, who is no longer living. Yarris v. Delaware County, No. 04-cv-3804, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4131, at *12-13 (E.D. Pa. Feb. 28, 2005). However, the District Court denied the motion as to the remainder of Yarris's claims against Assistant District Attorneys Gross, McAndrews, and Ryan (collectively, the "ADAs"), and Criminal Investigation Division Detectives Martin, Pfeifer, and Siti (collectively, the "CID Detectives"). Id. The ADAs and CID Detectives appealed the District Court's denial of absolute and qualified immunity.

II. Jurisdiction and Standard of Review

The District Court had subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1343, as this case involves claims of constitutional violations brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The District Court had supplemental jurisdiction over Yarris's state law claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a). We have appellate jurisdiction over this interlocutory appeal of the District Court's order denying absolute and qualified immunity from Yarris's ...


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