A federal appeals court ruled Thursday that a lawsuit brought against the Baltimore Police Department and three officers by a man who says he was wrongfully convicted of murder in a 1987 killing can proceed.
James Owens was charged in the robbery, rape and murder of 24-year-old phone company employee and college student Colleen Williar in her Southeast Baltimore home.
According to court records, Owens came under suspicion when a neighbor of Williar's, James Thompson, told police he found a knife outside Williar's apartment and retrieved it on behalf of Owens, a friend.
Police found no physical evidence to link Owens to the crime but charged him on the basis of Thompson's statement. Owens was convicted and spent 20 years in prison before he was freed in 2008.
Two of the three officers named in Owens' lawsuit inspired characters on David Simon's television show "Homicide," according to the Baltimore City Paper. Detective Jay Landsman was the inspiration for Detective John Munch, played by Richard Belzer. He also had a character named after him on Simon's HBO series "The Wire." Detective Thomas Pellegrini inspired Detective Tim Bayliss, played by Kyle Secor.
Owens alleges that Thompson, the state's witness, told police that he had no involvement in the crime, and then changed his account more than five times.
That information was never presented in court. Owens was convicted of burglary and murder and sentenced to life without parole.
Owens appealed, and DNA testing in 2006 found no link between Owens and the physical evidence at the scene.
He was granted a new trial but remained in prison for 16 more months before prosecutors dropped the case and he was released.
Owens filed his lawsuit against the Police Department, the three officers, the Baltimore state's attorney's office and an assistant state's attorney in 2011, a few days before the third anniversary of prosecutors dropping the case. He alleges that Landsman, Pellegrini and Detective Gary Dunnigan suppressed the evidence of Thompson's changed stories and violated Owens' right to a fair trial.
The defendants argued that the statute of limitations had expired and that Owens had insufficient evidence to proceed, and the U.S. District Court in Maryland agreed.
But the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., overturned the lower court's ruling. The court found that the three-year statute of limitations began when the case was dropped, not when Owens was granted a new trial or when he was initially convicted. The court also found that there was sufficient evidence that the detectives had acted improperly.
The "officers' omissions were not accidental, but intentional and malicious," the judges wrote.
The 4th Circuit also found that the Baltimore state's attorney's office was not an entity that could be sued. The case was sent back to the lower court.