Federal civil-rights lawsuits were filed Friday and Tuesday on behalf of two people who were ordered released from prison in 2018 after two federal judges in Little Rock determined they were wrongly convicted in 1992 in a Dallas County murder case.
The lawsuits were filed on behalf of Tina Jimerson and John Brown Jr., each of whom served 26 years of life sentences that U.S. district judges Brian Miller and Billy Roy Wilson found were based on "bad faith" actions of law enforcement officials and the deputy prosecutor, Robin Wynne, who is now an Arkansas Supreme Court justice.
The lawsuits, however, seem to shield Wynne from blame in what a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis later agreed were mangled prosecutions.
They name as defendants 10 former law enforcement officers from Dallas and Calhoun counties, the city of Fordyce and the Arkansas State Police, but they don't name Wynne. In the body of the suits, attorneys allege that the officers "concealed all of their fraudulent activity by intentionally withholding from and misrepresenting to trial prosecutors facts that further vitiated probable cause against" the since-vindicated inmates.
The former inmates' attorneys from the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University's Pritzker School of Law in Chicago didn't return the newspaper's calls Tuesday and Wednesday.
On April 29, the 8th Circuit panel affirmed Miller and Wilson's 2018 rulings, saying bad faith was evident in the capital-murder prosecutions, in that exculpatory evidence had been withheld from defense attorneys.
The opinion said that notably, in early 2014, Dallas County Sheriff Donny Ford -- who is the first-named defendant in the lawsuits and is no longer the sheriff -- told an investigator for Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions some startling information. He said that in 1991, early in his sheriff's career, he planted an informant in a jail cell with Charlie Vaughn, another man who was accused with Jimerson and Brown in the 1988 slaying of 78-year-old Myrtle Holmes of Fordyce.
The informant, later identified as Ronnie Prescott, eventually told attorney Karen Daniel, who found him in South Carolina, that at Ford's direction, he had made secret recordings of his conversations with Vaughn, who was mentally challenged. Prescott revealed that in return for leniency on drug charges he faced, he scared a "confession" out of Vaughn by telling him he could face the death penalty unless he confessed and named Jimerson and Brown as his accomplices.
Soon after the jailhouse conversation, which was never disclosed to defense attorneys, Vaughn pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of first-degree murder, accepting a life sentence. As part of his plea agreement, he provided information implicating Brown and Reginald Early,who was also already facing charges in the case, as his accomplices. He also provided information leading Jimerson to be charged separately as a getaway driver.
Prosecutors went forward on the theory that the three men acted together in the Sept. 22, 1988, rape and murder of Holmes, who was found dead in the trunk of her car after her home was broken into overnight.
But six years ago, when confronted with the possibility of new DNA testing that could determine who the rapist was, Early told an attorney for the Innocence Project that he committed the rape and slaying himself, didn't even know Jimerson and Brown, and barely knew Vaughn. He officially came forward on Dec. 21, 2015, taking sole responsibility for both the rape and the murder, and providing non-public details that only the true killer would know, according to court documents.
Eventually, thanks to dogged work by attorneys with the Midwest Innocence Project and the Center on Wrongful Convictions in Chicago that allowed the cases to be reviewed in federal court, Brown and Jimerson's first-degree murder convictions were vacated and they were set free. Vaughn remains imprisoned but has filed a petition for relief from his plea and sentence.
Jimerson's and Brown's lawsuits say that Early "has stated that he would have pled guilty to the murder and accepted his punishment except for the fact that three people whom he knew to be innocent had been charged along with him. Assuming that his co-defendants would not be convicted, Early decided to take his chances at trial in the hope that he would be found not guilty along with them."
The case was first tried before a Dallas County jury in 1991 and included both rape and murder charges. DNA recovered from Holmes' body excluded both Vaughn and Brown, but Early couldn't be excluded as the source. The case ended in a hung jury.
A second trial in 1992 didn't include the rape allegations and resulted in Jimerson, Brown and Early all being convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life terms.
The lawsuit alleges that Ford and Ronnie Poole, then chief of the Fordyce Police Department, acted with the other named investigators to "deliberately and in bad faith" destroy the recording of Prescott's conversations with Vaughn. They speculated this was because the recording showed that Prescott fed facts about the case to Vaughn, that Vaughn "lacked knowledge of the crime," and demonstrated that his statements "were coerced via threats of the death penalty."
The suit states that before the trial, the investigators never revealed Prescott's identity or his role in eliciting Vaughn's plea. It also alleges that they manipulated a trusty at the Dallas County Jail to make a false statement corroborating that Brown, Vaughn and Early were seen together, and that Brown was wearing bloody clothes the night of the killing. They noted that the trusty later recanted the statement, as did his brother, who had also been manipulated into making a false statement about what he had seen that night.
In Miller's 2018 order vacating Jimerson's conviction, he noted that Wynne told defense attorneys in 1991 that the only tape recordings the state had were of two trial witnesses and that the state hadn't made any offers of leniency or other inducements to any informant, or to anyone other than Vaughn.
The 8th Circuit judges said the failure to disclose Prescott's recording of Vaughn "is evidence of a conscious effort to suppress evidence. The deliberate omission is indicative of bad faith."
The lawsuits seek a jury trial, compensatory and punitive damages, attorneys' fees and "any other relief" the court deems appropriate.
Jimerson's case was assigned to U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker, while Brown's case was assigned to U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr.