PLAINFIELD — Byron Halsey is more familiar than most with how injustice looks and feels.
And after spending more than 20 years in prison for hideous crimes he didn’t commit, he’s convinced it’s happening all over again.
The city man, who was wrongfully convicted for a pair of child sex assaults and murders committed in 1985 before being exonerated by DNA evidence in 2007, will appeal a federal judge’s decision to toss the lawsuit he filed against the city and the police officials who spearheaded a woefully flawed investigation, according to his attorneys.
“We were shocked and disappointed,” said Nick Brustin, a partner with the powerhouse New York City-based law firm NSB Civil Rights. “We have already filed a notice of appeal, and we’re confident, based on other decisions around the country, that this decision will be reversed.”
U.S. District Judge Dennis M. Cavanaugh on Thursday granted summary judgment to the city and co-defendants Frank Pfeiffer and Raymond Lynch, ruling against Halsey in his bid to illustrate that law enforcement representatives violated his constitutional rights.
The lawsuit had alleged that a 24-year-old Halsey, still suffering the effects of a night of heavy drinking, was taken by officers into a small room at police headquarters and questioned “aggressively and in an accusatory manner” for 12 hours on Nov. 15, 1985. That was just after the bodies of Halsey’s girlfriend’s two young children, 8-year-old Tyrone and 7-year-old Tina, were found in the basement of a boarding house at 209 E. Seventh St., the small boy with nails driven into his skull and Tina’s body exhibiting clear signs of sexual assault.
Halsey never made an admission of guilt during the first round of interrogation, according to his suit, but was never left alone and never told he was free to leave. The next day he was returned to police headquarters to endure another 12 hours of interrogation, the entire saga representing a chain of events Halsey claimed ultimately led to his own false confession (Halsey was freed in 2007 when DNA accessed on appeal pointed to a neighbor, Clifton Hall, as being responsible for the sex assaults and murders).
Yet Cavanaugh ruled Thursday that police broke no laws during their bid to uncover what happened, noting that the police officials who conducted the investigation are entitled to what is known as “qualified immunity” for their roles in Halsey’s eventual wrongful imprisonment.
Brustin declined to talk at length on the record about the basis for Halsey’s pending appeal, but repeatedly expressed confidence that Cavanaugh’s decision will be overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. A full brief is expected to take about three to four months to write and file, he said.
City Corporation Counsel David Minchello, reached by telephone Tuesday, said the news didn’t come as a shock.
“It’s what I expected,” he said. “As it stands now, we don’t know the merits of it (the appeal) ... but we’ll address the matter more when the brief is filed.”
Minchello said he plans to inform the City Council of the pending appeal during a closed session scheduled for Monday. Gauging from similar cases, the city could be liable for anywhere between $1 million and $20 million in damages if Halsey prevails on the appeal and a subsequent reconsideration.
A 53-page counterstatement filed on Halsey’s behalf in October 2012 may shed some light on the basis for his appeal. The filing indicates that investigators not only went after the wrong man but also did so in spite of the fact that “there were numerous factors pointing to Hall as the perpetrator.”
“These defendants ignored multiple factors consistent with Mr. Halsey’s innocence and sought to manufacture a case against him,” the filing reads. “Defendant Pfeiffer subjected Mr. Halsey to three lengthy interrogations in a two-day period, arranged for him to take a polygraph examination subject to an utterly one-sided stipulation, and confronted him with his alleged failure of that examination — despite the fact that the results of the examination could not reasonably be read to demonstrate deception.”
“In the face of Mr. Halsey’s repeated assertions of innocence, defendants Pfeiffer and Lynch fabricated the ‘confession,’ which, after nearly two full days of interrogation, Mr. Halsey signed,” the filing added.
According to the counterstatement, throughout the course of the prosecution and trial of Halsey, Pfeiffer and Lynch failed to disclose to prosecutors or to the defense the fact that the confession had been fabricated; as a result, the confession was presented at a suppression hearing and at trial as having originated with Halsey himself.
That filing and others paint a sympathetic picture of Halsey as a man who bounced from foster home to foster home as a child and struggled with drug abuse as an adult. His life finally seemed to have turned a corner by late in 1985, when he had lived with his girlfriend of more than a year and reportedly came to love her two children as his own.
However, when he got home from a night of drinking, the children were gone, his girlfriend broke up with him over the phone, and hours later, the children’s bodies were discovered in the basement of the building where they all lived together.
“It’s just another blow,” Brustin said of Thursday’s decision. “He (Halsey) doesn’t have a sense that things are going to work out right because they didn’t in the past.”
Citing the pending nature of his appeal, Brustin said his client will not be speaking with the media for the foreseeable future. But he and another attorney described Halsey as busy getting his life back together, having earned a supervisory role with a company that performs work out of Newark Liberty International Airport.
“Byron’s very upset with (the decision),” Brustin said. “But he’s doing well, he’s working, he’s spending time with his grandchildren. As far as people who have been through something like this go, he’s doing extraordinarily well.”