Cause and Conviction: The Role of Causation in § 1983 Wrongful Conviction Claims
Volume 81, No. 3, Fall 2008
By Teressa E. Ravenell [PDF]

On December 15, 1984, William O’Dell Harris, a talented athlete in Rand, West Virginia, had the same concerns as most teenagers. Harris had been offered several college scholarships and was deciding where to attend college. Six months later, after being falsely accused of sexually assaulting a young woman, Harris was dealing with issues that would confound most adults.

On December 16, 1984, a young woman who lived near Harris was sexually assaulted outside of her home. Harris was arrested and charged with first-degree sexual assault approximately seven months later. Although Harris was a juvenile at the time of the assault, prosecutors opted to try him as an adult. At trial, the victim identified Harris as her attacker, the deputy sheriff “emphatically supported her testimony,” and Fred Zain, a police serologist, “testified that the genetic markers in the semen left by the assailant matched those of Harris and only 5.9 percent of the population.” Despite Harris’s alibi and repeated proclamations of his innocence, the jury returned with a guilty verdict. The jury convicted Harris of second degree sexual assault after less than four hours of deliberation. On October 18, 1987, Harris was sentenced to ten to twenty years in prison.

Six years after his conviction, in November of 1993, Harris filed a petition for postconviction habeas corpus wherein he consented to DNA testing of any remaining evidence. After failing to comply with three court orders to release the trial evidence for DNA analysis, the sheriff’s department finally claimed that all the evidence from Harris’s trial had been lost. An investigator for the defense later found semen evidence taken from the victim during her medical examination after the 1984 attack. After two tests, both of which “showed that Harris was not the donor of the semen on the evidence slide, the district attorney held a press conference on August 1, 1995, to state that Harris was innocent.” In October, the court vacated his conviction, and “[o]ne month later, the court also dismissed the underlying indictment. Harris had served 7 years of his sentence and an additional year of home confinement.”

The detective who testified at Harris’s trial was later convicted of perjury. Additionally, a report by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors concluded that Fred Zain, the police serologist who testified at Harris’s trial, had engaged in numerous acts of misconduct and that “this misconduct was ‘the result of systematic practice rather than an occasional inadvertent error.”’ There is also evidence to suggest that the victim was repeatedly exposed to suggestive interviewing techniques and that the prosecutor failed to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense.

As William Harris’s case demonstrates, the United States criminal justice system can erroneously convict persons of crimes. Recent statistics on wrongful convictions confirm that the United States criminal justice system convicts, incarcerates, and, in some instances, executes people for crimes of which they are innocent. Although wrongful convictions may be an inevitable consequence of our criminal justice system, it would seem that a person wrongly deprived of his liberty is entitled to a civil remedy to compensate for the mistakes of the criminal system. Yet persons wrongly convicted of crimes who bring actions under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for an erroneous arrest, detention, or conviction are often denied monetary compensation.

There are a number of bases for courts to deny exonerees a § 1983 monetary remedy for their erroneous convictions. First, although such convictions may be factually wrong, they may not be legally wrong. To establish liability under § 1983, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant caused him to be deprived of a constitutional right. Furthermore, even in cases where the plaintiff is able to prove a constitutional violation, the persons responsible for the deprivation are often immune from suit.

Legal scholarship discussing § 1983 actions for wrongful convictions typically focuses on (1) whether wrongful conviction or prosecution violates the Constitution, and (2) the role of absolute and qualified immunity in these cases. Furthermore, legal scholars who do discuss civil remedies for wrongful convictions only focus on one or two actors in the criminal justice process who might be civilly liable. Yet, as Harris’s case suggests, “wrongful convictions do not result from a single flaw or mistake; many factors can be at the root of a wrongful conviction.” Such factors may include biased police lineups, mistaken eyewitness identification, faulty forensic science, coerced false confessions, and unreliable informants. Accordingly, one person is seldom the “cause” of a wrongful conviction. This severely complicates questions of causation in § 1983 litigation, which requires a plaintiff to prove that each individual defendant deprived him of a specific constitutional right and that the deprivation of this constitutional right, in turn, caused his injuries.

This Article discusses the availability of a § 1983 civil remedy for persons wrongly convicted, but it approaches the issue from a very different angle from previous articles on the subject. The primary focus of this Article is not whether wrongful convictions violate the Constitution, nor whether certain immunities shield government officials from monetary liability; instead, I consider the role of causation in § 1983 wrongful conviction cases.

Although causation is seldom mentioned as an element of a § 1983 claim, it plays two roles in § 1983 litigation. First, causation is an inherent part of the deprivation element of a § 1983 claim. Additionally, causation serves as a link between the defendant’s breach and the plaintiff’s damages, which I refer to as “damages causation.” Courts have used this second form of causation to limit liability in § 1983 wrongful conviction claims. I argue that courts’ approaches to damages causation in § 1983 claims unnecessarily and improperly limit defendants’ liability in wrongful conviction cases.

This Article proceeds as follows. Part II begins with a brief overview of the most common reasons persons are convicted of crimes of which they are innocent. These reasons include eyewitness misidentification, police and prosecutorial misconduct, and ineffective defense counsel. Part II.B explains that while the number of persons exonerated from their convictions has increased in recent years, there has not been a corresponding rise in the availability of civil remedies to persons wrongly convicted of a crime. This section concludes that the absence of alternative civil remedies has led to a surge in the number of § 1983 wrongful conviction cases.

Part III considers how plaintiffs and courts have attempted to fit wrongful conviction claims into the § 1983 rubric. To do so, an exoneree must prove that the alleged conduct deprived him of a federally protected right. In other words, he must translate the basic facts leading to his conviction into the language of a federal statutory violation. I suggest that most § 1983 wrongful conviction claims are cast as a Fourth Amendment or a Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process claim. This portion of the Article concludes that the Court’s method of distinguishing Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process rights often makes it difficult to categorize the acts that lead to wrongful convictions as a deprivation of a federal right, as required for a viable § 1983 claim.

Part IV expands upon Part III’s discussion of § 1983 jurisprudence. This Part, however, examines the role of causation in wrongful conviction cases in which the plaintiff seeks monetary damages. I argue that causation plays two roles in § 1983 litigation for compensatory damages. First, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant caused him to be deprived of a constitutional right. Furthermore, as previously mentioned, there must be a causal link between this constitutional breach and the plaintiff’s actual injury. This Part goes on to describe how courts have approached these questions in § 1983 litigation and consider the policy arguments that courts have advanced to support their varying approaches to causation in § 1983 wrongful conviction cases.

Part V suggests that § 1983 jurisprudence has developed in such a way that the purpose of legal causation (or proximate cause)–to limit liability to those situations where it is justifiable–has already been satisfied by other elements, rendering the role of proximate cause in § 1983 redundant and largely unnecessary. Part V.A provides a brief overview of the history of legal causation in the common law of torts, focusing primarily on the policy reasons for limiting liability in tort negligence actions. Part V.B then discusses the role of qualified immunity in § 1983 litigation and compares the policy concerns underlying the availability of qualified immunity and those that legal theorists and courts use to rationalize proximate cause in negligence cases. This Part concludes that proximate cause is not only an unnecessary limit on liability in § 1983 cases, but it is actually unjustified in those cases where the defendant has been denied a qualified immunity defense.

Read Article…