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Tarlton v. Sealey

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division

March 1, 2018

RAYMOND TARLTON, as guardian ad litem for HENRY LEE MCCOLLUM, and J. DUANE GILLIAM, as guardian of the estate of LEON BROWN, Plaintiffs,
KENNETH SEALEY, [1] both individually and in his official capacity as the Sheriff of Robeson County, et al, Defendants.



         This cause comes before the Court on motions for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure as well as plaintiffs' motion for sanctions. A hearing on the dispositive motions was held before the undersigned on January 23, 2018, at Raleigh, North Carolina. The motions have been fully briefed and are in this posture ripe for ruling. For the reasons that follow, defendants' motions for summary judgment are granted in part and denied in part and plaintiffs' motions for summary judgment and for sanctions are denied.


         Henry McCollum and Leon Brown instituted this action against Robeson County, Kenneth Snead, Joel Locklear, the Town of Red Springs, Kenneth Sealey, Larry Floyd, Paul Canady for the Estate of Luther Haggins, and Leroy Allen on August 31, 2015. [DEI]. Their amended complaint alleges four claims arising under 42 U.S.C. § 1983: false arrest, malicious prosecution, deprivation of due process, and municipal liability for custom, usages, practices, procedures, and policies as a result of which McCollum's and Brown's[2] constitutional rights were violated. McCollum and Brown seek a declaratory judgment that defendants have violated their rights as provided by the United States Constitution, an award of compensatory and punitive damages, and attorneys' fees. [DE 70].

         A guardian was appointed to represent the interests of Leon Brown on March 14, 2016 [DE 66]; a substitute guardian was appointed on May 31, 2016. [DE 85]. On May 27, 2016, the Court denied a motion to dismiss by Snead and Allen and granted a motion to dismiss filed by defendant Robeson County. [DE 83 & 84]. On December 12, 2016, Robert E. Price, Administrator C.T.A. of the Estate of Joel Locklear was substituted as a party for defendant Locklear. [DE 116]. A guardian ad litem was appointed to represent the interests of Henry McCollum on May 10, 2017. [DE 204]. On December 18, 2017, the Court approved a settlement between plaintiffs and the Town of Red Springs, Larry Floyd, and Paul Canady, Administrator C.T.A. of the Estate of Luther Haggins. [DE253].


         The following is comprised of the undisputed facts upon which all parties rely in their motions for summary judgment. [DE 127-1; 165; 178; 183; 185-1].

         Eleven-year old Sabrina Buie went missing on the night of Saturday, September 24, 1983, in the Town of Red Springs in Robeson County, North Carolina. Her parents filed a missing persons report with the Red Springs Police Department on Sunday, September 25, 1983. James Shaw discovered Sabrina Buie's body on Monday afternoon, September 26, 1983, in a soybean field near a convenience store in Red Springs. Miss Buie's body was found naked from the waist down with her bra pushed up over the back of her head. Her panties and a stick were down her throat, and she had been sexually assaulted.

         The Red Springs Police Department requested that the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) participate in the murder investigation. Defendant Leroy Allen, then a resident SBI agent in Robeson County, was dispatched to process the crime scene. The Sheriff of Robeson County assigned defendants Detective Joel Garth Locklear and Detective Kenneth Sealey to provide additional support to the SBI. Defendants SBI Agent Kenneth Snead and Detective Sealey, [3] were dispatched to canvass the neighborhood for witnesses. Defendant Locklear also participated in the investigation by canvassing the area near where Sabrina Buie's body was discovered, as did other law enforcement agents.

         On September 27, 1983, while canvassing the neighborhood for witnesses, Locklear spoke to plaintiff Henry McCollum outside of McCollum's home at 104 Malpass Avenue. McCollum denied any knowledge of the disappearance of Miss Buie. At the time, McCollum was staying with his mother, Mamie Brown, and his half-siblings Leon and Geraldine Brown; McCollum was visiting from New Jersey. At approximately 6:20 p.m. on September 28, 1983, Agent Snead and Detective Sealey interviewed Ethel Furmage, then seventeen years-old, at her residence. Miss Furmage stated that she had heard at school that McCollum (referred to as Buddy by those who knew him) had something to do with Miss Buie's murder. That evening, Snead, Sealey, and Agent Allen traveled to McCollum's home to interview him, arriving at approximately 9:10 p.m. McCollum agreed to ride with the officers to the Red Springs police station. After arriving at the police station, McCollum was fingerprinted and taken to the office of Red Springs Police Chief Luther Haggins for questioning.

         A Miranda waiver form bearing McCollum's signature reflects the time of 10:26 p.m. on September 28th. At 2:10 a.m. on September 29, 1983, McCollum signed a handwritten confession which was drafted by Agent Snead and witnessed by Sealey and Chief Haggins. [DE 147-29]; [DE 146-11] Snead Dep. at 50. The confession details that McCollum along with Darrell Suber, Louis Moore, Chris (last name unknown) and Leon Brown walked down the road toward the little red house with Miss Buie at approximately 9:30 p.m. on Saturday September 24th. After Suber and Chris left and returned from the convenience store with a six pack of beer, Suber, Chris, McCollum, Moore, and Brown discussed raping Buie as she had not agreed to have sex with them voluntarily. Moore then left, and the remaining men and Miss Buie walked to the woods at the edge of a field where they drank beer. McCollum grabbed Miss Buie's right arm and Brown grabbed her left arm and then men proceeded to rape Miss Buie; McCollum stated he was the third in the group to rape Miss Buie and that Brown was the last. The confession recounts that Suber then stated that they had to do something so that she would not tell the police, and that Chris then picked up a stick and tied Miss Buie's pink panties to the stick and choked Miss Buie to death. McCollum and Brown held Miss Buie down while she was being choked and Suber was cutting Miss Buie with a knife. After they believed Miss Buie to be dead, the men dragged her body to the edge of the woods toward a ditch. Suber had blood on his brown corduroy jacket and gray Nike tennis shoes with a burgundy seal, and Chris had blood on his sneakers, which were New Yorkers. Suber and Chris were smoking Newport cigarettes in the woods. Id. Henry McCollum's intelligence quotient has been scored as low as 56.

         After signing the transcribed confession, McCollum was placed under arrest for the rape and murder of Miss Buie. While McCollum was being questioned, his mother Mamie Brown and brother Leon Brown had gone to the Red Springs police station. At approximately 2:00 a.m. on September 29th, Brown was asked by law enforcement to step into a room and talk with them, which he did. Brown, then fifteen years-old, signed a form entitled "Juvenile Rights Warning" at 2:24 a.m. [DE 148-35]. Brown was interviewed by Detective Locklear and Red Springs Police Chief Haggins. Leon Brown signed a confession that was reduced to writing by Detective Locklear. Leon Brown's confession implicated Darrell Suber and Chris Brown, but differed in aspects from McCollum's confession. For example, Brown's confession makes no mention of Louis Moore's involvement nor does it reference a stick as being used to force Miss Buie's underwear down her throat. Following his confession, Leon Brown was arrested for the rape and murder of Sabrina Buie; juvenile petitions charging Brown with delinquency related to rape and murder were filed on September 29, 1983. [DE 161-13]. Leon Brown's intelligence quotient has been scored consistently in the mid-50s range.

         On September 30, 1983, McCollum made an on-camera statement to a television reporter that he had "just held her down. That's it." [DE 161-19] Barnes Aff. f6. McCollum and Brown were indicted by a grand jury on January 3, 1984, on charges of first degree murder and rape. [DE 161-16]. They were tried together in Robeson County Superior Court in October 1984. The prosecutor was District Attorney Joe Freeman Britt, McCollum was represented by Earl Strickland, and Brown was represented by Robert Johnson. [DE 140-1] 1984 Trial Tr. at 1. McCollum and Brown both moved to suppress their confessions and their motions were denied. The trial court held that both McCollum and Brown had voluntarily gone to the Red Springs police station and that before each was questioned he had knowingly and intelligently waived his rights. [DE 142-3] 1984 Trial Tr. at 1346-51]. The trial court held that the statements of McCollum and Brown were made freely, voluntarily, and knowingly without duress, coercion, or inducement. Id. McCollum and Brown both testified at trial, each was convicted of first degree murder and rape, and each was sentenced to death.

         On appeal, the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed and remanded for a new trial, finding error in the trial court's jury instructions. State v. McCollum, 321 N.C. 557 (1988). McCollum and Brown were retried separately in adjacent counties. McCollum was retried in Cumberland County in November 1991. On July 31, 1991, the Cumberland County Superior Court denied McCollum's motion to suppress his confession, specifically concluding that none of McCollum's constitutional rights were violated by his arrest, detention, interrogation, or statement, that his statement was made freely and voluntarily, that McCollum was in full understanding of his constitutional rights and that he waived those rights freely, knowingly, and intelligently. [DE 161-31]. During his opening and closing statements, and with the consent of McCollum, McCollum's attorney argued to the jury to that McCollum was present for the rape and murder of Miss Buie and asked the jury to return a verdict of second degree murder. The jury returned a verdict of guilty on the charges of first degree murder and rape, and McCollum was again sentenced to death. [DE 141-1] 1991 Trial Tr. at 1597-98; 1632-33; 2058-2065]. The North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed McCollum's conviction and sentence. State v. McCollum, 334 N.C. 208 (1993). The United States Supreme Court denied McCollum's petition for writ of certiorari. McCollum v. North Carolina, 512 U.S. 1254 (1994).

         In June 1992 Brown was retried in Bladen County Superior Court. Brown's motion to suppress his confession was denied, the court concluding that Brown knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waived his rights, that none of his rights under the North Carolina or United States Constitution had been violated, and that his statement was voluntary and not the result of any coercion, pressure, or intimidation. [DE 166-3]. The trial court later granted a defense motion to dismiss the first degree murder charge, finding that Brown had withdrawn from a conspiracy to commit murder, and the jury found Brown guilty of first degree rape. [DE 146-1] 1992 Trial Tr. at 288]. Brown was sentenced to life imprisonment. Id. at 310. Brown's conviction and sentence were affirmed on appeal both in the North Carolina Court of Appeals and the North Carolina Supreme Court. State v. Brown, 112 N.C.App. 390 (1993); State v. Brown, 339 N.C. 606 (1995). Brown did not file a petition for writ of certiorari to the United States Supreme Court.

         In 2009, Brown sought assistance from the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission (NCIIC). The NCIIC accepted Brown's case and began its investigation, which included DNA testing of physical evidence found at the scene of the crime. A Newport-brand cigarette butt found near other evidence was found to contain DNA which matched that of Roscoe Artis. Roscoe Artis is currently serving a life sentence, commuted from death, following his conviction in Robeson County for the first degree murder and rape of Joann Brockman. See State v. Artis, 325 N.C. 278 (1990), cert, granted, judgment vacated, 494 U.S. 1023 (1990); see also State v. Artis, 329 N.C. 679, 680 (1991). Artis was arrested on October 22, 1983, the same day Ms. Brockman went missing and her body was discovered, and tried in August 1984. [DE 129-1]. Defendants Allen and Locklear testified for the state in Artis' trial, Locklear having participated in the arrest and investigation of Artis and Allen having conducted testing on a blood sample taken from Artis. See [DE 129-1; 132-1] Artis Trial Tr. at 618-620; 707-711.

         Other than Miss Buie, the DNA tested on other items of physical evidence found at the crime scene did not match any known person, including McCollum and Brown. Although McCollum had not filed a claim with the NCIIC, the Commission expanded its investigation to include McCollum. Following a hearing held September 2, 2014, on motions for appropriate relief (MAR) filed by McCollum and Brown, at which the investigator from the NCIIC, Ms. Sharon Stellato was the sole witness, the Robeson County Superior Court granted the motions and vacated McCollum and Brown's convictions. [DE 154-7; 155-7]. The State did not contest that the newly-discovered DNA evidence was favorable to McCollum and Brown and conceded that McCollum and Brown had satisfied the requirements of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-270 (c)(2), which governs the relief available to petitioners who come forward with favorable DNA evidence post-conviction. The MAR court held that, "especially when considered together with the rest of the results of the [NCIICJ's investigation, " the favorable DNA evidence "tend[s] to establish Henry McCollum's and Leon Brown's innocence of crime for which they were convicted and sentenced . . .." [DE 155-7 at 3-4]. The MAR court ordered the vacatur of their convictions and sentences as imposed in Robeson, Cumberland, and Bladen Counties, dismissed with prejudice all charges in the cases, or order their immediate release. Id. On June 5, 2015, McCollum and Brown were issued full pardons of innocence by Governor Pat McCrory. [DE 147-14].


         I. Motions for Summary Judgment

         The parties have moved for entry of summary judgment or partial summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. A motion for summary judgment may not be granted unless there are no genuine issues of material fact for trial and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477l U.S. 317, 323 (1986). If that burden has been met, the non-moving party must then come forward and establish the specific material facts in dispute to survive summary judgment. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 588 (1986). In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists for trial, a trial court views the evidence and the inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007). However, "[t]he mere existence of a scintilla of evidence" in support of the nonmoving party's position is not sufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986). "A dispute is genuine if a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. . . . and [a] fact is material if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law." Libertarian Party of Virginia v. Judd, 718 F.3d 308, 313 (4th Cir. 2013) (internal quotations and citations omitted). Speculative or conclusory allegations will not suffice. Thompson v. Potomac Elec. Power Co., 312 F.3d 645, 649 (4th Cir. 2002).

         The Court considers first the motions for summary judgment by the two remaining sets of defendants and the affirmative defenses raised therein.

         A. Collateral Estoppel

         Both the SBI defendants, Allen and Snead, and the Robeson County Sheriffs Office defendants, Sealey and Locklear, have raised the defense of collateral estoppel or res judicata. Specifically, defendants contend that collateral estoppel prevents plaintiffs from re-litigating here whether probable cause existed to support their arrests and whether their confessions were voluntary. Defendants argue that plaintiffs' convictions, though later vacated, conclusively establish that probable cause existed and that the state court judges' rulings on the plaintiffs' motions to suppress their confessions conclusively establish that their confessions were voluntary.

The federal courts have traditionally adhered to the related doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel. Under res judicata, a final judgment on the merits of an action precludes the parties or their privies from relitigating issues that were or could have been raised in that action. . . . Under collateral estoppel, once a court has decided an issue of fact or law necessary to its judgment, that decision may preclude relitigation of the issue in a suit on a different cause of action involving a party to the first case.... As this Court and other courts have often recognized, res judicata and collateral estoppel relieve parties of the cost and vexation of multiple lawsuits, conserve judicial resources, and, by preventing inconsistent decisions, encourage reliance on adjudication.

Allen v. McCurry, 449 U.S. 90, 94 (1980) (internal citations omitted). The doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel apply to § 1983 actions, and federal courts must afford preclusive effect to issues which have been decided by state courts when the courts of that state would do so. Id. at 95-96 (citing 28 U.S.C. § 1738); see also Davenport v. N. Carolina Dep't of Transp., 3 F.3d 89, 92 (4th Cir. 1993) (federal court considering § 1983 action to give res judicata effect to a state court judgment and to apply the law of the rendering state to determine whether and to what extent the state court judgment should be given preclusive effect).

In order to assert collateral estoppel under North Carolina law, a party must show that the issue in question was identical to an issue actually litigated and necessary to the judgment, that the prior action resulted in a final judgment on the merits, and that the present parties are the same as, or in privity with, the parties to the earlier action. North Carolina courts have abandoned the final requirement of "mutuality of estoppel" for the defensive use of collateral estoppel, so long as the party seeking to reopen the issue "had a full and fair opportunity to litigate" the matter in the previous action.

Sartin v. Macik, 535 F.3d 284, 287-88 (4th Cir. 2008) (citing Thomas M. Mclnnis & Assocs., Inc. v. Hall,318 N.C. 421, 349 S.E.2d 552, ...

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