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Civil right claim fails for a victim of a prosecutor’s defamatory statements


After serving seven years in prison for a kidnapping and rape conviction, a DNA test revealed that Echols’s DNA did not match the semen recovered from the victim. His conviction was vacated by a Georgia trial court and the local district attorney, Spencer Lawton, declined to retry the case causing it’s dismissal. A state legislator later introduced a bill to compensate Echols to compensate Echols for his wrongful convictions, but Lawton wrote a letter and memorandum to several of the legislators opposing Echols’ compensation falsely stating that Echols remained under indictment. As a result of Lawton’s correspondence, the bill failed. Echols filed a 1983 lawsuit against Lawton for violating his rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The trial court dismissed the lawsuit based on its finding that Lawton had qualified immunity protection from the lawsuit.

In Echols v. Lawton, the court of appeals rejected Echols’ s appeal from the trial court’s dismissal of his claim.   It agreed that Echols stated a valid claim for retaliation under the First Amendment. A claim for First Amendment retaliation requires the plaintiff to allege that he engaged in protected speech, that the official’s conduct adversely affected the protected speech, and that a causal connection exists between the speech and the official’s retaliatory conduct. Here it was alleged that Lawton retaliated against Echols by his speech to the members of the legislature. Lawton’s speech contained defamatory statements that were libel per because it falsely stated that Echols had a criminal case pending against him. The court rejected Lawton’s to invoke the First amendment protection because it does not protect an official’s defamatory speech from a claim of retaliation.

Lawton’s alleged libel per se that Echols remained under indictment would likely deter a person of ordinary firmness from engaging in protected speech. When Echols exercised his freedom of speech and right to petition the government by seeking compensation for his wrongful convictions, Lawton retaliated by defaming him and by misleading legislators to believe as a matter of fact that Echols remained under indictment for the kidnapping and rape. The court of appeals concluded that Echols’ complaint did state a valid claim of retaliation.

But the court of appeals agreed with the district court decision that Lawton had qualified immunity protection from a civil rights lawsuit because Echols’ right was not clearly established when Lawton violated it.  An official’s conduct violates a clearly established constitution right when the contours of the right are sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right. The court concluded that although Lawton clearly would have had fair notice that this alleged writing constituted libel per se under Georgia state court tort law, he would not have understood that his alleged libel would have violated Lawton’s First Amendment right. There was no controlling precedent had addressed a similar violation. While the court of appeals condemned Lawton’s conduct, the Supreme Court ruled that qualified immunity protects a badly behaving official unless he had fair notice that his conduct would violate the Constitution.

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