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Family of man freed by UB Innocence Project files wrongful conviction suit

Malcolm Bryant addresses the audience at a UB School of Law symposium on wrongful convictions on Sept. 29, 2016. Professor Michele Nethercott, director of UB’s Innocence Project Clinic, is at right. (University of Baltimore School of Law)

Malcolm Bryant addresses a UB School of Law symposium on wrongful convictions on Sept. 29, 2016. Professor Michele Nethercott, director of UB’s Innocence Project Clinic, is at right. (University of Baltimore School of Law)

The family of a Baltimore man exonerated by DNA evidence is suing the Baltimore Police Department for actions the family claims violated the man’s rights and led to his wrongful conviction.

Malcolm Jabbar Bryant died in 2017 at the age of 42. He was released from prison in 2016 after spending nearly 18 years in jail for a murder he did not commit.

“Everything that happened to him is an unbelievable tragedy and it’s so much worse that he barely got to experience life,” said Anna Benvenutti Hoffman, an attorney for the family. “Obviously, we would much prefer that we could get compensation for him, but I know it was also important to him to be able to take care of his kids.”

Hoffman, of Neufeld Scheck & Brustin LLP in New York, said her firm became involved in Bryant’s case shortly after he was released.

On behalf of his estate, Bryant’s two sons filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Feb. 8 alleging police acted intentionally or with willful indifference when they obtained a misidentification of Bryant and failed to disclose a witness with a different account, as well as evidence pointing to another possible perpetrator.

“The Baltimore Police Department has long maintained a policy, pattern, and practice of misconduct in murder investigations, including fabricating evidence, suppressing exculpatory and impeachment evidence, and failing to conduct constitutionally adequate investigations,” the complaint states. “By focusing on clearing murder cases as quickly as possible, rather than conducting thorough and professional investigations, the Department cut corners and rushed to judgment, resulting in profound constitutional errors.”

Bryant was 23 when he was charged with the murder of Toni Bullock, who was fatally stabbed Nov. 20, 1998. He was convicted of first-degree murder in 1999 and sentenced to life in prison plus 10 years. He was identified in a photo array by a friend of Bullock’s who was with the teenager but managed to escape from the assailant.

Bryant’s case was eventually taken up by the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law. Prosecutors reopened the investigation into Bullock’s murder and re-interviewed witnesses, experts and others involved in the case. Tests of a bloody spot on Bullock’s shirt that corresponded with the location of the lethal stab wound, as well as tests of her fingernail clippings, found DNA that was not Bryant’s.

“Mr. Bryant’s wrongful conviction was no accident,” the complaint alleges. “It was the result of serious misconduct by the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) officers investigating Ms. Bullock’s murder.”

The detective assigned to the case identified Bryant as a suspect based on a tip that was not recorded in the investigatory file as other tips had been. The detective conducted several undocumented interviews with the main witness and used a “suggestive identification procedure” to obtain an identification of Bryant.

Police deviated from procedures when they had a composite sketch done, and alternate or draft sketches that did not resemble Bryant were not disclosed to the prosecution or defense, according to the complaint.

After arresting Bryant, police did not investigate his alibi and then “ignored and buried several key pieces of evidence exculpating Mr. Bryant and pointing to (another suspect),” including several tips that all identified the same person. The detective questioned the second suspect but “appears to have been attempting to eliminate (him) as a suspect so he could proceed with his case against Malcolm Bryant.”

Eyewitness reports that contradicted the main witness’ report were also not disclosed to attorneys.

A forensic analyst for the police examined fingernail clippings from Bullock for blood, not DNA, and said no further testing was possible, according to the lawsuit. However, DNA testing on Bullock’s fingernails would later exonerate Bryant.

The lawsuit alleges violations of Bryant’s federal due process rights, malicious prosecution and conspiracy, as well as a Monell claim against the department that alleges the officers were acting pursuant to policies and practices of the department.

“Our firm has litigated wrongful conviction cases around the country, including a number of Monell claims successfully,” Hoffman said. “Often what you see is systemic problems in supervision and discipline that create a situation that lets misconduct happen again and again.”

Bryant’s family is also represented by Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP in Baltimore.

The case is The Estate of Malcolm J. Bryant v. Baltimore City Police Department et al., 1:19-cv-00384.

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