During James Owens’s trial for burglary, rape, and murder in 1988, the investigating officers failed to disclose to the defense that the state’s star witness changed his story five times in speaking with the officers during the trial. Owens was convicted and spent more than twenty years in prison before he was granted a retrial based on DNA evidence in 2007. In 2008, the state dropped the charges against him. In 2011, Owens sued the officers and the Baltimore police department (among others) for violations of his constitutional rights, including his right not to have exculpatory evidence withheld from his defense. The district court dismissed the case on the grounds that the three-year statute of limitations had expired and, in the alternative, that the officers were immune from suit. In 2014, the court of appeals reversed and reinstated Owens’s lawsuit. The officers and the police department petitioned the Supreme Court for review.
Serving as co-counsel in the Supreme Court, Public Citizen prepared the brief in opposition to the petition. The brief argued that the suit was timely because the three-year statute of limitations began to run when the state dropped all charges in 2008, not when Owens was granted a new trial in 2007. On immunity, the brief argued that it was clearly established by 1988 that officers violate a criminal defendant’s constitutional rights when they withhold exculpatory or impeachment evidence, and in any event the violation here was so egregious that any reasonable officer should have realized that the officers acted unconstitutionally here in withholding from the defense the fact that the state’s star witness changed his story five times in the midst of the trial. In April 2015, the Supreme Court denied review.