A McMinn County man who was on death row for 19 years and scheduled to die in the electric chair on five dates, then was granted a new trial, has filed a $20 million lawsuit against McMinn County government.
The suit filed for Gussie Willie Vann says he was not allowed an attorney for a lengthy time and that confessions were coerced from him relating to the death of his eight-year-old daughter in 1992.
Senior Judge Donald Harris in 2009 set aside Vann's conviction and death penalty sentence based on ineffective assistance of counsel.
Several of the investigators in the case have since died.
The suit was filed in Chattanooga Federal Court by attorney Robin Flores.
Here is the complaint:
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF TENNESSEE
GUSSIE WILLIE VANN, §
Plaintiff, § No. ________________
§ JURY DEMAND
MCMINN COUNTY GOVERNMENT, §
Introduction: 1. This is an action for money damages brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1988 to redress the deprivation of rights secured to the plaintiff by the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution by the defendant.
2. Plaintiff avers that individual officer or officers of the McMinn County Government ("County") deprived plaintiff of his right to be free from an unreasonable seizures and self-incrimination without the Due Process of Law.
3. Plaintiff avers that the officers violated the plaintiff’s rights to access to an attorney during critical stages of the prosecution at issue, to include a forced confession, and for extended times, which resulted in plaintiff’s damages.
4. Plaintiff maintains that the officers committed these violations and torts as a result of policies, customs, and/or procedures of the County.
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5. This is an action to redress the deprivation of rights secured to the plaintiff by the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States. Thus, this Court is vested with original jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1343.
6. Venue is proper in this Court, Chattanooga Division, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §1391(B). All acts complained of occurred within McMinn County, a political sub-division of the State of Tennessee, and physically located within the fourteen county district of this Court.
a. Plaintiff is a resident of Morgan County, Tennessee. At the time of the violations, plaintiff was a resident of McMinn County, Tennessee.
The Parties: 7. At all times relevant to this cause of action, the County is a political sub-division of the State of Tennessee organized and existing under the laws of the State of Tennessee.
a. The County finances its sheriff’s department and provides rules and regulations for the operation of the department.
8. At all times relevant to this cause of action, the County is responsible for the creation and maintenance of the McMinn County Sheriff’s Department, which is a law enforcement agency created under Tennessee state law and regulated by the laws of the State of Tennessee as to:
a. The safe confinement and treatment of prisoners placed within the custody of its individual law enforcement officers and agents.
b. The supervision, oversight of investigations, and training of its individual law enforcement officers and agents.
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9. At all times relevant to this cause of action, the individual officer[s] referenced in this Complaint were employed by the County and acted under the color of law, statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage.
Factual Basis for Complaint: 10. On July 31, 1992, plaintiff and his then wife, BERNICE VANN ("Bernice") called paramedics to their home when they found their 8 year old child dead.
11. McMinn County Criminal Investigator, Jerry Lynn Tate ("Tate," deceased June 4, 2010), arrived at the hospital where paramedics transported the child to the formerly named Athens Community Hospital.
12. Tate and investigator Gary Cullins ("Cullins," deceased November 1, 2012) conducted an investigation of the child’s death, and on or about August 14, 1992, subsequently charged plaintiff with first degree murder and sex crimes.
13. The investigators held plaintiff for 48 hours without probable cause. The investigators questioned plaintiff after they denied plaintiff his right to counsel. The investigators also later arrested plaintiff (explained more fully below) and held him for nearly ten months in custody without the benefit of counsel. During those times, the investigators obtained and coerced confessions from plaintiff, without the benefit of counsel. Specifically:
a. Tate and Cullins took plaintiff into custody on or about August 14, 1992 without probable cause at the time, and held him without allowing plaintiff the ability to contact counsel. At the same time, the same investigators questioned plaintiff and obtained a confession from plaintiff.
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b. Charles Spurling ("Spurling") (family friend) attempted to get the investigators to stop the questioning during this 48 hour period until he could obtain the services of Larry B. Nolan, Esq.
c. The investigators held plaintiff for 48 hours until Spurling finally made continued complaints to Sheriff George Rogers, whereupon the investigators released plaintiff without charges.
d. Spurling was never able to secure the services of Nolan, and plaintiff was never able to obtain the funds to hire an attorney.
e. Several days later, while in the McMinn County Juvenile Court before Judge James Watson, plaintiff and his wife Bernice were in a hearing to try and regain custody of their surviving minor children from the State of Tennessee Department of Children’s Services when the investigators and Sheriff Rogers arrested plaintiff and Bernice.
f. The law enforcement agents based much of their probable cause to arrest plaintiff on the evidence they obtained from the initial 48 hour seizure period.
g. The County then held plaintiff in custody without bond and without an attorney for 10 months, resulting in time lost to begin a defense, and to counter the subsequent searches and interviews.
14. The investigators continued to gather evidence from plaintiff’s residence and to question plaintiff during the initial 48 hour seizure and the subsequent 8 to 10 month period.
15. Investigators enlisted the aid of Dr. Ronald Toolsie ("Toolsie") to conduct an autopsy of the child.
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16. At the time, and based upon plaintiff’s belief, the investigators knew Toolsie would craft the results of any autopsy to conform to the investigators’ theory of their case.
17. Based upon plaintiff’s belief, Toolsie gave his findings to comport with the theory of the case as set forth by Tate and Cullins.
18. Toolsie has since lost his license to practice medicine in the State of Tennessee based in part to his abuse of prescription drugs.
19. On August 11, 1994, a McMinn County jury found plaintiff guilty of felony-murder, and incest.
20. On August 11, 1994, R. Steven Bebb, the presiding judge, entered a judgment against plaintiff sentencing plaintiff to death in the state’s electric chair, and set the initial date of execution for July 30, 1995.
21. Since the conviction, plaintiff has been scheduled to die in the electric chair five times.
22. On May 26, 1999, plaintiff filed his first petition for post-conviction relief under Tennessee state statute.
23. On May 15 through May 18, 2007, and on September 25, 2007, Senior Judge Donald P. Harris, appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court, conducted a hearing on plaintiff’s post-conviction petition and subsequent amended petition.
24. On May 28, 2009, Judge Harris set aside plaintiff’s conviction and death penalty for felony-murder, and granted plaintiff a new trial based upon the ineffective assistance of plaintiff’s trial counsel.
25. Plaintiff raised issues of coerced confession, unreasonable search of his home and the unreasonable seizure of his person, and a violation of his right against self-incrimination, but
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Judge Harris did not consider these claims, since plaintiff filed the claims beyond the statute of limitation for post-conviction relief ("PCR").
26. On September 22, 2011, the State of Tennessee moved to dismiss the charges of felony-murder and incest. The trial court granted the motion.
27. The County failed to provide proper supervisory oversight of the actions of Tate and Cullins, failed to give Tate and Cullins proper training to ensure they did not use the questionable medical findings of Toolsie, and to ensure they did not deprive the plaintiff of his rights against unreasonable seizures, self-incrimination, and deprivation of counsel.
a. At no time during the highly publicized investigation and prosecution did the County take steps to ensure the investigators were acting within the bounds of the law.
28. As a direct and proximate result of the actions and omissions of the County, plaintiff suffered the mental anguish and terror of preparation for death in the electric chair, humiliation at a wrongful conviction, the loss of his family when taken into custody by the State of Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services and later adopted by non-relative persons. Plaintiff also suffered loss of income, the enjoyment of life, and has become disabled due to the stress and rigors of a wrongful conviction and nearly 19 years on death row as a direct and proximate result of the actions and omissions stated herein.
Cause[s] of Action:
29. Plaintiff incorporates ¶¶ 1-28 and submits the acts and omissions of the County constitute a violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in that the County deprived plaintiff of the following rights secured to him under the United States Constitution:
a. Right to remain free from self-incrimination – 5
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b. Right the effective assistance of counsel during questioning and during all phases of the prosecution – 6
c. Right to freedom from unreasonable seizure– 4
th Amendment; and
d. Deprived plaintiff of these fundamental rights without the Due Process of Law – 14
e. County acted with deliberate indifference to the welfare and rights of the plaintiff by its failure to
plaintiff seeks and prays for the following damages:
1. Twenty Million dollars ($20,000,000.00) in actual damages;
2. Attorney fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988;
3. Trial by jury.
Robin Ruben Flores
ROBIN RUBEN FLORES