People For the American Way

Biden Judge Rejects Immunity for Prosecutor who Helped Get False Evidence that Convicted an Innocent Black Man

News and Analysis
Biden Judge Rejects Immunity for Prosecutor who Helped Get False Evidence that Convicted an Innocent Black Man

Judge Tamika Montgomery-Reeves, nominated by President Biden to the Third Circuit court of appeals, wrote a 2-1 opinion rejecting a local prosecutor’s claim that he should be immune from a civil rights suit for helping concoct false evidence that led to the false conviction of a Black man for murder. The January 2024 decision was in Roberts v Lau.


What is this case about?    

In December 2005 in Harrisburg Pennsylvania, someone “shot and killed Duwan Stern while he was sitting in his car.” When police detective David Lau came to the scene, Stern’s cell phone received three calls from the same number in several minutes. Larry Trent Roberts, an acquaintance of Stern who had heard that something might have happened to him, had made the calls.

Lau “had a history” with Roberts, which included falsely arresting him for assault. As a later complaint by Roberts stated, he became Lau’s “prime suspect” even though “police found no evidence” against him. Lau arrested Roberts for murder and “decided to shore up the state’s case by fabricating evidence.”

As part of that effort, Lau enlisted the help of John Baer, an assistant district attorney. Baer “began affirmatively seeking a jailhouse snitch who would testify as to a motive” for Roberts’ alleged murder of Baer. He found such a snitch who falsely claimed that Roberts and Stern “had a dispute over drug debts.” Based on this and other false testimony, Roberts was convicted of Stern’s murder.

Thanks to the work of the Pennylvania Innocence Project, Roberts was exonerated of murder more than a decade after his conviction. He served 13 years in prison for a crime that he did not commit. After his release, he filed a federal civil rights suit against Lau and Baer for their misconduct.

Before discovery in the case even began, however, Baer claimed he should be absolutely immune from the lawsuit under Supreme Court precedent concerning immunity for prosecutors. The district court rejected Baer’s claim, finding that his improper fabrication of evidence occurred while he was investigating the crime, not while he was performing an advocative or prosecutorial function. Baer immediately appealed to the Third Circuit.


How Did Judge Montgomery-Reeves and the Third Circuit Rule and Why is it Important?

 Judge Montgomery-Reeves wrote a 2-1 opinion that affirmed the district court and sent the case back so that Roberts could continue his case against Baer. She carefully reviewed the facts and the law, and agreed with the lower court that whether absolute immunity applies depends on the “nature of the function performed, not the identity of the actor who performed it.” The complaint maintained that Baer engaged in “quintessential ‘police investigative work’” when he located and obtained the false testimony of the jailhouse snitch, and was not then performing a prosecutor’s job. Although Baer could try to disprove the charges against him and later try to obtain immunity, Judge Montgomery-Reeves explained, at this point the case should go forward against him.

The decision by Judge Montgomery-Reeves is obviously important to the efforts of Larry Trent Roberts to obtain some justice and compensation for the 13 years of false imprisonment he suffered for a crime he did not commit. It is also significant to make clear that a prosecutor is not always absolutely immune from liability for improper conduct, depending on the function being performed. This Is particularly true in the Third Circuit, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, where the ruling is now precedent. It also serves as an example of the importance of promptly confirming fair-minded Biden nominees like Judge Montgomery-Reeves to our federal courts.