Vernon Horn has sued the city of New Haven after spending 17 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit. Vernon Horn has sued the city of New Haven after spending 17 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Courtesy photo

A 37-year-old man wrongly imprisoned for 17 years has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against four former police officials and the city of New Haven, claiming evidence that would have cleared him sat in a detective’s home basement.

Vernon Horn will seek ”eight figures” in the litigation against the city, three former New Haven police detectives and a former firearms examiner employed by the Connecticut State Police Forensic Science Laboratory, stemming from convictions in 2000, according to his attorney. He was released from prison in April after Connecticut Superior Court Judge Patrick Clifford vacated his murder and robbery convictions, on the recommendation of New Haven State’s Attorney Pat Griffin, who said the state no longer had confidence that Horn was responsible for the crimes.

See the full complaint here

In a strongly worded, 58-page lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut Friday, Horn’s attorneys paint a picture of New Haven police officers and a forensic examiner deliberately ignoring evidence that would have cleared Horn in the 1999 New Haven deli robbery and murder of Caprice Hardy.

“The New Haven Police Department hid 137 pages of exculpatory phone records in a detective’s basement for nearly two decades. They coerced and threatened witnesses,” the lawsuit states. “They fabricated evidence. They destroyed evidence. They failed to investigate evidence that would have exonerated an innocent man.”

The stinging complaint continues: “A forensic examiner [defendant James Stephenson] with the Connecticut State Police secretly manipulated his report to fit the testimony of the state’s key witness. Then he failed to disclose the manipulation or the new report to the defense.” Stephenson, who now has his own Madison-based forensic consulting business, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

The crux of the case: evidence that could have easily exonerated Horn, according to his lawsuit, which cites 137 pages of phone records from a cellphone stolen from the robbery that Horn’s attorneys say was used by the actual killers.

Those phone records, Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder attorney Sean McElligott told the Connecticut Law Tribune Tuesday, were in the basement of the home of now-retired New Haven Police Detective Petisia Adger.

McElligott, one of four plaintiff attorneys in the case, said, “The phone records prove Mr. Horn’s innocence beyond a shadow of a doubt. They were never disclosed to the defense in the case. They were withheld from the defense.”

 

‘Not the First Time’

McElligott said he’s seeking at least “eight figures” in monetary damages. He also said he isn’t sure why New Haven police allegedly withheld evidence, other than to keep to a narrative that Horn was the murderer.

Sean McElligott of Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder. Sean McElligott of Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder. Courtesy photo

“They ignored evidence and followed a theory, despite the fact that the truth did not support that theory,” he said. “It’s a classic situation of the police creating facts to support a bad theory, as opposed to following facts.”

Adger has an unlisted telephone number and was not available for comment Tuesday.

Noting the recent cases of Scott Lewis and Bobby Johnson, who were also exonerated after spending time in prison following investigations by the New Haven Police Department, McElligott said: “This says they knowingly put an innocent man in jail and it was not the first time.”

The current lawsuit only seeks monetary damages and McElligott said he would not address whether he’d pursue other charges against the defendants down the road.

McElligott said the new evidence in the case would not have been unearthed if not for the hard work of attorneys in the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the District of Connecticut.

There have been no other suspects named to date in the murder. Neither New Haven Police Chief Anthony Campbell or New Haven Police Public Information Officer David Hartman responded to a request for comment on either the status of the investigation or the lawsuit itself.

In 2014, Superior Court Judge Robert Young set aside Horn’s convictions after more than a week of witness testimony. The state appealed the vacating of the conviction and in 2016 the Connecticut Supreme Court reinstated the conviction and Horn went back to prison. While he was out of prison for those two years, his attorneys said he got married and had a daughter.

McElligott said he’s confident a jury will find in favor of his client.

“I really think it’s everyone’s worst nightmare to be caught up in the jaws of the state for a crime you did not commit,” McElligott said. “This was a spectacular failure of the criminal justice system. Mr. Horn has always maintained his innocence, but he was surrounded by people for 17 years that did not believe him. He was surrounded by people who thought he was a liar and a murderer. I think a jury will be very empathetic to a person in that situation.”

Horn issued a statement through his attorneys soon after he was released.

The statement read: “What happened to me was not only a crime against me, it was a crime against humanity. I was falsely prosecuted and lied about by people who are supposed to be public servants. I suffered emotionally, and I was physically and mentally abused in prison.”

The next step in the case, McElligott said, is to depose witnesses, including the four named defendants. In addition to the city, Adger and Stephenson, also named is Leroy Dease, formerly a New Haven police detective and current investigator for the state, and Daryle Breland, also a former New Haven detective. Breland has since retired. Neither Dease or Breland responded to a request for comment Tuesday.

As of Tuesday afternoon, New Haven and the four defendants had not been assigned an attorney. New Haven Corporation Counsel John Rose Jr. referred all comment to Laurence Grotheer, director of communications for the office of the New Haven mayor. At press time, Grotheer had not responded to a request for comment.

Assisting McElligott on the matter are Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder’s Matt Blumenthal, and Ilann Maazel and Douglas Lieb of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady.

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New Haven Man Jailed For 17 Years Freed After Judge Vacates Murder, Robbery Convictions