BATTLE CREEK (WWJ/AP) – A federal court on Tuesday refused to reinstate the lawsuit of a man who blames prosecutors for leaving him in prison for nearly 20 years after his conviction was overturned.
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. But the appeals court 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 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,” a three-judge panel said. “Liability, however, does not necessarily attach to any entity and/or individual as a result of this breakdown.”
Heyerman was convicted of criminal sexual conduct in 1988, after prosecutors said he sexually assaulted his 10-year-old step-daughter. A year later, the Michigan appeals court overturned the conviction because of trial errors. But instead of getting a new trial, he stayed in prison.
Heyerman’s attorney was familiar with 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 law for about three years.
Judge Jeffrey Sutton of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals called 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,” he said. “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.
“One suspects that Heyerman and his attorney will not try this again, and one hopes that Michigan will not let this happen again,” Sutton said.
A message seeking comment was left with Heyerman’s current lawyer, James Sauber.
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