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6th Cir. Upholds $13M Award for Wrongfully Convicted Man

By Mark Wilson, Esq. | Last updated on

In 2000, David Ayers was convicted of the murder of Dorothy Brown, a 76-year-old woman living in Cleveland. There's just one problem: Ayers didn't do it. In 2011, he was freed after the Sixth Circuit said that his case was marred by defects of a constitutional character.

In 2012, Ayers filed suit against the detectives who investigated his case, as well as the City of Cleveland. In an opinion issued last week, the Sixth Circuit upheld an award of $13 million in damages to Ayers.

Sure, It Was That Guy, Why Not

Detectives began to focus on Ayers because he "exhibited deception" during a voice stress test. That seems to be about it. The Sixth Circuit's statement of facts recounts how detectives made statements in their police reports that turned out not to be true. Long story short, he was arrested.

The prosecution called as a witness Donald Hutchinson, an inmate assigned to Ayers' jail pod. Hutchinson said he would be willing to testify at Ayers' trial. He talked to Ayers about the murder, claiming that Ayers confessed to the murder. Ayers was found guilty "[b]ased largely on Hutchinson's testimony" and sentenced to life in prison.

A Simple Procedural Issue

After being released, Ayers filed the civil suit, alleging multiple constitutional violations, including the Sixth Amendment and Brady, and fabricating police reports. A federal jury awarded Ayers that $13 million.

On appeal, the detectives raised qualified immunity as a defense. Qualified immunity seems kind of laughable at this point -- after all, it's clearly established law that police can't use a jailhouse informant to get around the Sixth Amendment and that they can't withhold exculpatory evidence, like police reports that contradict the facts. (In fact, that jailhouse informant case is part of the core curriculum in criminal procedure class.)

Fortunately, the Sixth Circuit didn't even have to address qualified immunity, finding instead that the detectives forfeited it by failing to raise it. In fact, they forfeited a bunch of other things too, like their challenge to the denial of judgment as a matter of law and to the sufficiency of the evidence at trial. It's a simple procedural issue: A defendant has to make a Rule 50(b) motion after the prosecution's case, and then must renew that motion after the jury's verdict. The defendants' failure to renew their motion for a judgment as a matter of law was fatal to their claim.

As an ongoing reminder, make sure you renew those JMOLs or else you'll be in a boatload of trouble. It's the little things that really get you in the end.

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