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Wilson v. Marshall

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

September 14, 2018

BETTY WILSON, Plaintiff,
STEVEN T. MARSHALL, et al., Defendants.



         Plaintiff Betty Wilson, who was convicted in an Alabama state court of capital murder in 1993, brings this lawsuit against the Alabama Attorney General and the Madison County District Attorney for allegedly violating her right to procedural due process, barring her access to the courts, and foreclosing her opportunity to prove her actual innocence. In 2010, Wilson filed a post-conviction motion in an Alabama court seeking access to and testing of deoxyribonucleic acid (“DNA”) evidence that was collected from the crime scene under Alabama's then-newly enacted post-conviction DNA testing statute, Ala. Code § 15-18-200 (“DNA statute” or “DNA law”). The motion was denied in 2011, Wilson's appeal was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction, and two petitions for a writ of mandamus to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and Alabama Supreme Court, also were, respectively, denied. Wilson challenges the constitutionality of the DNA statute and the denial of her motion, appeal, and mandamus petitions by the state courts. Wilson brings her claims through the remedial statutory vehicle of 42 U.S.C. § 1983.[2]

         In addition to challenging the constitutionality of the DNA law and the outcome of her state court proceedings, Wilson asks the court to enter a judgment that provides her the following relief:

1. Ordering defendants to take all steps reasonably necessary to ensure that the physical evidence collected in connection with the investigation and prosecution of the crime for which plaintiff was convicted, including all of the evidence referenced in the complaint, is preserved.[3]
2. Ordering defendants to cooperate with plaintiff in selecting a mutually-agreeable, fully-accredited private DNA laboratory to test the evidence at the expense of the Innocence Project, or, in the alternative, ordering that the evidence be tested at a laboratory chosen by this Court.
3. Ordering defendants to release the physical evidence collected in connection with the investigation or prosecution of the crime for which plaintiff was convicted for DNA testing to the laboratory chosen by the parties or this Court, including, but not limited to:
- The baseball bat,
- The victim's bloodstained fingernail clippings,
- The ski mask, - The hairs found inside the ski mask,
- The victim's bloody clothing,
- The cigarette butts found at the scene,
- The bloodstained carpet sample found near the victim's body, and
- The hairs collected from the victim's right hand.

         4. Ordering reasonable attorneys' fees and costs.

         5. Ordering such other and further relief as the Court deems just and proper. Doc. 1 at 19-20.[4]

         This matter is before the court on defendants' motion to dismiss plaintiff's complaint. See Doc. 8.[5] Defendants argue that the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine; plaintiff's claims are barred by res judicata, the statute of limitations, and laches; and plaintiff's causes of action fail on their merits. Wilson opposes the motion to dismiss. See Doc. 15. The motion has been fully briefed. Upon consideration, the court concludes that defendants' motion to dismiss is due to be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. Standard of Review

         Defendants bring the instant motion under Rule 12(b)(6). See Doc. 8 at 4. However, in addition to requesting dismissal for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, defendants also move for dismissal due to lack of subject matter jurisdiction, which is a Rule 12(b)(1) defense. See Id. at 4, 26-29. Accordingly, the court analyzes defendants' subject matter jurisdiction challenge under Rule 12(b)(1) separately from the 12(b)(6) arguments, and construes defendants' motion to dismiss as having two parts: a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) and a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted pursuant to 12(b)(6). As to the Rule 12(b)(1) request, in any event, a federal court is “‘empowered to hear only those cases within the judicial power of the United States as defined by Article III of the Constitution, 'and which have been entrusted to them by a jurisdictional grant authorized by Congress.”Univ. of S. Ala. v. Am. Tobacco Co., 168 F.3d 405, 409 (11th Cir. 1999) (quoting Taylor v. Appleton, 30 F.3d 1365, 1367 (11th Cir. 1994)). A federal court is obliged to inquire on motion or sua sponte into subject matter jurisdiction “at the earliest possible stage in the proceedings.”Id. at 410. Thus, the court addresses defendants' Rule 12(b)(1) jurisdictional challenge before weighing defendants' Rule 12(b)(6) arguments.

         A. Rule 12(b)(1)

         The Rule 12(b)(1) standard of review was summarized in Greenwell v. University of Alabama Bd. of Trustees, 2012 WL 3637768 (N.D. Ala. 2012). The court explained:

Challenges to subject-matter jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure can exist in two substantially different forms: facial attacks and factual attacks. Sinaltrainal v. Coca-Cola Co., 578 F.3d 1252, 1260 (11th Cir. 2009). When presented with a facial attack on the complaint, the court determines whether the complaint has sufficiently alleged subject- matter jurisdiction. Sinaltrainal, 578 F.3d at 1260. The court proceeds as if it were evaluating a Rule 12(b)(6) motion; that is, it views the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and accepts all well-pled facts alleged in the complaint as true. Id.
On the other hand, factual attacks question “the existence of subject matter jurisdiction in fact, irrespective of the pleadings, and matters outside the pleadings, such as testimony and affidavits, are considered.” Id. (citing Lawrence v. Dunbar, 919 F.2d 1525, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)). When a court is confronted with a factual attack, the standard of review diverges considerably:
[T]he trial court may proceed as it never could under 12(b)(6) or Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. Because at issue in a factual 12(b)(1) motion is the trial court's jurisdiction-its very power to hear the case-there is substantial authority that the trial court is free to weigh the evidence and satisfy itself as to the existence of its power to hear the case. In short, no presumptive truthfulness attaches to plaintiff's allegations, and the existence of disputed material facts will not preclude the trial court from evaluating for itself the merits of jurisdictional claims.
Lawrence, 919 F.2d at 1529 (citing Williamson v. Tucker, 645 F.2d 404, 412 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, 454 U.S. 897 (1981)). When a district court has pending before it both a 12(b)(1) motion and a 12(b)(6) motion, the generally preferable approach, if the 12(b)(1) motion essentially challenges the existence of a federal cause of action, is for the court to find jurisdiction and then decide the 12(b)(6) motion. Jones v. State of Ga., 725 F.2d 622, 623 (11th Cir. 1984).

Greenwell at *5 (alterations in original); see also McCoy v. Mallinckrodt Pharm., Inc., 2016 WL 1544732, at *2 (M.D. Ala. 2016), report and recommendation adopted, 2016 WL 1465967 (M.D. Ala. 2016) (quoting Greenwell's standard of review).

         The challenge presently before the court is a facial challenge regarding the applicability of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.

         B. Rule 12(b)(6)

         A Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss tests the sufficiency of the complaint against the legal standard set forth in Rule 8: “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2).

         In evaluating a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), the court must take “the factual allegations in the complaint as true and construe them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Pielage v. McConnell, 516 F.3d 1282, 1284 (11th Cir. 2008). However, “the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 663 (2009). “[A] plaintiff's obligation to provide the ‘grounds' of his ‘entitle[ment] to relief' requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007).

         “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). “Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief [is] ... a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Id. at 663 (alteration in original) (citation omitted). “[F]acial plausibility” exists “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). The standard also “calls for enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence” of the claim. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556. While the complaint need not set out “detailed factual allegations, ” it must provide sufficient factual amplification “to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Id. at 555.

         “So, when the allegations in a complaint, however true, could not raise a claim of entitlement to relief, ‘this basic deficiency should ... be exposed at the point of minimum expenditure of time and money by the parties and the court.'” Id. at 558 (quoting 5 Wright & Miller § 1216, at 233-34 (quoting, in turn, Daves v. Hawaiian Dredging Co., 114 F.Supp. 643, 645 (D. Haw. 1953)). “[O]nly a complaint that states a plausible claim for relief survives a motion to dismiss.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).

In keeping with these principles a court considering a motion to dismiss can choose to begin by identifying pleadings that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth. While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations. When there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.


         Defendants assert that this court “should take judicial notice” of federal and state court proceedings related to the plaintiff's conviction and to appellate or other attacks on the conviction in evaluating the instant Rule 12(b)(6) motion, in addition to considering the plaintiff's allegations in the complaint. See Doc. 8 at 22 (internal marks and citation omitted). In support of this argument, defendants rely on Cunningham v. Dist. Attorney's Office for Escambia Cnty., 592 F.3d 1237 (11th Cir. 2010), which was before the Court on a motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) as well as a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss.[6] See Id. at 1241, 1255. The Court

accept[ed] all the facts in the complaint as true and view[ed] them in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. At the same time, however, [the Court] also [took] judicial notice of the state and federal court proceedings in which [plaintiff Cunningham] was convicted or attacked [her] conviction.

Id. at 1255 (citations, quotation marks, and footnote omitted).

         Plaintiff contends that the court should follow Cunningham to the extent that the plaintiff's allegations of fact should be considered as true for purposes of the court's ruling on a motion to dismiss, but it should ignore Cunningham for the proposition that the court may take judicial notice of state and federal court proceedings related to plaintiff's conviction and challenges to that conviction. See Doc. 15 at 6-7. Wilson asserts, instead, that the court is limited to the “four corners” of the complaint and may only consider exhibits attached to that pleading. Id. (quoting Keating v. City of Miami, 598 F.3d 753, 762 (11th Cir. 2010) (“[T]he scope of the [court's] review must be limited to the four corners of the complaint.”) (brackets in plaintiff's brief); Grossman v. Nations bank, N.A., 225 F.3d 1228, 1231 (11th Cir. 2000) (“When considering a motion to dismiss, all facts set forth in the plaintiff's complaint are to be accepted as true and the court limits its consideration to the pleadings and exhibits attached thereto.”) (internal marks omitted)). However, as noted supra, a court must consider material facts of which it may take judicial notice in resolving a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. See, e.g., Tellsqabs, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308, 322, 127 S.Ct. 2499, 2509 (2007).

         The facts that the plaintiff was convicted, and that the state courts resolved her appeals, habeas petitions, and motions for DNA testing, are material to the plaintiff's claims and to the resolution of the motion to dismiss. Thus, as to those points alone, pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 201(b), the court takes judicial notice of the existence and outcome of the state and federal court decisions. See Claudio v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., 578 Fed.Appx. 797, 800 (11th Cir. 2014) (“Under Federal Rule of Evidence 201, [a court] may take judicial notice of “a fact that is not subject to reasonable dispute because it: (1) is generally known within the trial court's territorial jurisdiction; or (2) can be accurately and readily determined from sources whose accuracy cannot reasonably be questioned.”) (quoting Fed.R.Evid. 201(b)). The plaintiff's participation in and the outcome of those proceedings are a matter of public record, and the accuracy of this information “cannot reasonably be questioned.” Id. However, the court does not and need not take judicial notice of those courts' findings of fact or conclusions of law.[7] Also, “all facts set forth in the plaintiff's complaint [have been] accepted as true, ” and the court has otherwise “limit[ed] its consideration to the pleadings and exhibits attached thereto.” Grossman, 225 F.3d at 1231 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         II. Factual and Procedural Background

         Following a trial in an Alabama state court in 1993, a jury determined that Wilson paid $5, 000.00 to James White to kill her husband. White was the friend and lover of Wilson's sister, Peggy Lowe. The state argued at trial that, through Lowe, Wilson contacted White to commit the crime.

         On May 22, 1992, Wilson's husband, Dr. Jack Wilson, M.D., was found murdered in the couple's home. He had been severely beaten about the head and body and stabbed twice in the chest. The majority of his estate of $ 6.3 million went to Wilson. From the crime scene, the police recovered (1) a baseball bat that police believed was used by the perpetrator, (2) bloody fingernail clippings from the victim, (3) a ski mask that police believed was worn by the perpetrator, (4) hairs found inside the ski mask, (5) the victim's clothing, (5) cigarette butts believed to have been left by the perpetrator, (6) a bloodstained carpet sample found near the victim's body, and (7) hairs recovered from the victim's right hand. These items have never been tested for DNA evidence.

         Although White originally denied any involvement in the murder, he pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against Wilson and Lowe in exchange for avoiding the death penalty. Wilson asserts that her only link to the crime was through White. Wilson was convicted of murder, based largely on White's testimony, and sentenced to life in prison. On virtually the same evidence, a jury found Lowe not guilty of capital murder. A year after Wilson's trial, White recanted in an affidavit.

         Following her conviction, Wilson appealed and filed several post-trial motions, including three motions under Rule 32 of the Alabama Rules of Criminal Procedure in 1994, 2004, and 2007, as well as a federal habeas petition in 1998. All were rejected. In addition, she filed a motion for DNA testing in 2002 that was unopposed by the Madison County District Attorney. However, the Alabama Attorney General intervened and opposed the motion. The state court dismissed the motion for DNA testing on jurisdictional grounds.

         In 2009, Alabama enacted the DNA law that is at issue in this case. The law's first section states:

An individual convicted of a capital offense who is serving a term of imprisonment or awaiting execution of a sentence of death, through written motion to the circuit court that entered the judgment of sentence, may apply for the performance of forensic deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) testing on specific evidence, if that evidence was secured in relation to the investigation or prosecution that resulted in the conviction of the applicant, is still available for testing as of the date of the motion, forensic DNA testing was not performed on the case at the time of the initial trial, and the results of the forensic DNA testing, on its face, would demonstrate the convicted individual's factual innocence of the offense convicted.

Ala. Code § 15-18-200(a). It is undisputed that Wilson qualifies to file a motion under § 15-18-200(a). The DNA law provides details on what must be in the plaintiff's motion as well as instructions to the trial judge.

         Wilson filed a timely motion under the DNA statute. The Alabama Circuit Court Judge rejected plaintiff's motion on three independent grounds. That court's order states, inter alia:

         Having considered the arguments and representations made in pleadings on behalf of the petitioner and on behalf of the State of Alabama, and after careful review of all relevant and applicable law, the Court makes the following findings:

(1) Under Ala. Code § 15-18-200(a), the results of the forensic DNA testing, on its face, would not demonstrate the petitioner's factual innocence of the offense convicted. Even if other DNA specimens are present on the evidence requested for forensic DNA testing, this would not, on its face, exonerate James White or the Petitioner of the murder of Dr. Jack Wilson.
(2) Under § 15-18-200(c), [8] Petitioner has failed to demonstrate that the evidence which the petitioner has requested be subject to forensic DNA testing and analysis is in a condition that allows forensic DNA testing and analysis to be conducted which would yield accurate and reliable results. While Petitioner properly alleges that the evidence was not subjected to DNA testing at the time of Petitioner's trial and the evidence may still be in existence, Petitioner has failed to demonstrate to this Court that the evidence would yield accurate and reliable results if it is now subjected to DNA testing. Petitioner's statements that such evidence contains or is very likely to contain biological materials suitable for DNA testing is not sufficient proof that any such biological material would provide appropriate specimens suitable for DNA testing eighteen years after the murder of Dr. Jack Wilson. Furthermore, the provisions of Ala. Code § 15-18-200(c) are merely permissive and not binding upon this Court.
(3) Finally, under Ala. Code § 15-18-200(f)(2), the ‘court may not order testing in a motion for DNA testing if ... the court determines that there is no reasonable possibility that the testing will produce exculpatory evidence that would exonerate the applicant of the offense for which the applicant was convicted.' This court hereby finds that there is no reasonable possibility that the testing will produce ...

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