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Man Detained 17 Years After Conviction Overturned Can't Sue

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals knows a miscarriage of criminal justice when it sees one, but that doesn't mean that it will entertain civil litigation to right the wrong.

Last week, the Sixth Circuit affirmed a district court decision dismissing a lawsuit filed by a man who was held for 17 years without a trial after a state appellate court overturned his first conviction, reports The Chattanoogan.

In 1988, a jury in Calhoun County, Michigan, found Buxton Craig Heyerman guilty of one count of first-degree criminal sexual conduct. The trial court sentenced him to a prison term of 20 to 40 years. In 1989, the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed Heyerman's conviction, and remanded the matter to the trial court. Heyerman, through his appellate counsel, was informed and received a copy of the appellate court's decision.

According to the judge who presided over Heyerman's criminal trial, the procedure in place in his court in 1989 was to notify the parties and schedule a status conference when a case was remanded from the court of appeals. For unknown reasons, however, this procedure was not followed in Heyerman's case. The trial court judge and Conrad Sindt, (Calhoun County's Prosecuting Attorney from 1981 through 1990), only became aware of the reversal and remand in 2007.

Nothing happened in Heyerman's criminal case until record was returned to the Calhoun County Circuit Court in early 2007, when Heyerman filed a pro se writ of habeas corpus, (albeit in the wrong court.)

The judge overseeing the criminal proceedings then appointed counsel to represent Heyerman, who subsequently file a motion to dismiss on speedy trial grounds. After a series of hearings, the trial court ruled that Heyerman's right to a speedy trial under the Sixth Amendment had been violated, and the only remedy was to dismiss the criminal charge with prejudice. The prosecutor did not appeal the decision.

In 2009, Heyerman filed a civil rights action against, oh, pretty much every government-type person or entity he could think of. (Can you blame him?)

The district court dismissed Heyerman's suit because his 17-year detention was not based on a government custom, policy, or practice, or the prosecutor's bad faith, failure to train, or failure to supervise.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, noting, "The judicial system - to say nothing of the criminal defense system - has not functioned as it should when a criminal defendant remains imprisoned for 17 years after his or her conviction has been reversed and no further action has been taken. Liability, however, does not necessarily attach to any entity and/or individual as a result of this breakdown."

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