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Federal court finds no rights violations in false confession case

Special to the Legal News

Published: February 15, 2017

A federal court of appeals recently week affirmed judgment in favor of Richland County in a case involving allegations of civil rights violations.

Glenn Tinney appealed from the judgment of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio where he claimed that the Richland County prosecutor, assistant prosecutor and an investigator knowingly secured his false murder confessions and used them to perfect a guilty plea that served as the basis for a conviction that was later vacated.

Reviewing the case, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the lower court in ruling that the county actors were entitled to judgment in their favor.

Court documents state that Tinney was interviewed by investigator Joseph Masi after the death of Ted White in Mansfield in 1988.

In separate interviews, Tinney confessed twice to the murder but, according to a case summary, the confessions were "uneven" and inconsistent with evidence gathered during the investigation into White's death.

Assistant prosecutor David Mesaros was present during one of the confessions and he and Masi discussed a plea deal with Tinney and his appointed counsel, to which both agreed.

One day after the indictment was handed down, Tinney pleaded guilty to the murder and aggravated robbery of White and the judge accepted the plea on the basis of the confessions.

In 2012, Tinney sought to vacate his conviction on the grounds that his confessions were false and the product of "mental vulnerability and coercion."

The following year, the Richland County Common Please Court vacated the sentence, finding that Tinney's "mental illness documented by prison medical records and attested to by the psychologists seriously interfered with his understanding of the charges and consequences of his confession."

The common pleas court concluded that Tinney's confessions did "not provide any serious support for his conviction for murder, suggest that he is not guilty and make it manifestly unjust to deny the withdrawal of his guilty plea."

After the court found that it was not possible to determine whether Tinney was innocent, the prosecutor's office declined to retry him.

Tinney brought suit against Masi and the Richland County prosecutors for violations of federal and state law but the district court granted summary judgment to the defendants.

In his appeal to the 6th Circuit court, Tinney argued that "the record of evidence shows that defendants knowingly or recklessly procured a false confession to secure a wrongful conviction."

Tinney also pointed out that the only evidence offered at his plea hearing was his confessions, which were rendered suspect and false due to his incapacity.

"Tinney posits that an indictment predicated on a false confession cannot evince probable cause," Judge Eugene Siler wrote on behalf of the court of appeals. "The presumption of probable cause arising from an indictment, Tinney asserts, can be overcome when officials knowingly or recklessly present false testimony to a grand jury."

But the appellate court held that the lower court did not err when it granted summary judgment on the malicious prosecution claims because the evidence that Tinney presented was Masi's grand jury testimony, which is entitled to absolute immunity.

The circuit court also rejected Tinney's arguments with regard to procedural and substantive due process, which he claimed that he was denied.

"Although Tinney provided unreliable confessions, the record is devoid of allegations suggesting a problem with the guilty plea itself," Siler wrote. "And although the conviction was vacated, Tinney fails to allege or present evidence demonstrating that he did not appreciate the ramifications of pleading guilty."

The court did note that Tinney's allegations of a plot to use a false confession to secure a guilty plea are "serious and disconcerting," but it held that "the law at the time did not establish a right without some showing of bodily violation from the constitutional abridgment."

In other words, the appeals court held that the tactics used to procure the confessions "did not involve threats or cause injury" and that there were "no allegations exist of untoward conduct during his incarceration."

"In addition, a suspect's mental illness does not render a confession involuntary for purposes of due process," Siler concluded. "We cannot say that defendants were on notice that their conduct shocked the conscience under the 14th Amendment."

The judgment of the district court was affirmed with Judges Alice Batchelder and Richard Griffin joining Siler to form the majority.

The case is cited Tinney v. Richland County, Case No. 16-3125.

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