On Tuesday the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals refused to reinstate the lawsuit of a man, Buxton Craig Heyerman, who blames prosecutors for leaving him in prison for 17 years after his conviction was overturned. Heyerman filed a civil rights action alleging the defendants violated his Sixth Amendment speedy-trial rights through his lengthy detention.
There seems to be no dispute that a court order overturning Buxton Heyerman’s conviction and ordering a new trial apparently fell through the cracks in 1989. In January of 1988, after initially being found guilty of one count of first-degree criminal sexual conduct, he was sentenced to a prison term of 20-40 years. The next year the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed the conviction and remanded the matter back to the trial court. But instead of getting a new trial, he stayed in prison.
The Sixth Circuit said there’s no evidence that his extended stay in prison was due to a prosecutor's bad policy or a failure to supervise staff, key points in his civil rights lawsuit. The system in place at the time was to notify the parties and schedule a status conference once a case was remanded or reconsideration. For reasons unknown, the procedure was not followed in this case.
The Sixth Circuit wrote that:
“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.”
Heyerman’s attorney at the time was evidently aware of the decision but told his client to keep quiet and stay locked up for a few more years until the statute of limitations on the charge ran out. Calhoun County authorities said they became aware of the case only in 2007, when Heyerman filed a lawsuit demanding his release.
A judge that year dismissed charges, saying Heyerman's right to a speedy trial was violated. Heyerman’s former attorney paid $95,000 to settle a malpractice claim and was suspended from the practice of law for three years.
The judges of the Sixth Circuit summed the trial up aptly, calling it a “remarkable saga.”“It is not often that an inmate seeks refuge from the prosecutorial arm of the state by laying low for 17 years in prison in order to avoid the risk of a new trial that, if all goes badly, will lead to incarceration. And it is not often that a state abets this strategy by failing to realize that it is housing an individual whose conviction has been reversed.
To read the full opinion, click here
(Lee Davis is a Chattanooga attorney who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 266-0605.)