KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (CN) - Tennessee sheriff's deputies impersonated a jailed murder suspect's defense attorneys, and coerced witnesses to give false testimony against him, jailing him for four years, the man claims in court.
John Edward Dawson Jr. claims the deputies submitted false evidence to a grand jury to get him indicted. He claims the sheriff knew what they were doing and let them do it.
Dawson sued Monroe County, sheriff's Officers James Patrick Henry and Doug Brannon, and Monroe County Sheriff Bill Bivens, in Federal Court.
"While the individual defendants were acting in the scope of their employment with the Monroe County, Tenn. Sheriff's Office and under color of state law, they engaged in a scheme to implicate and prosecute John Edward Dawson Jr. for the murder of Troy Green," the complaint states.
"As part of this scheme, the defendants represented themselves as licensed attorneys who were representing John Edward Dawson Jr. on his pending criminal charges and pretended to handle parts of his case, interfered with Dawson's right to counsel, fabricated evidence, coerced witnesses to provide testimony against John Edward Dawson Jr. that the defendants knew to be false, and omitted relevant evidence and presented perjured testimony to the grand jury in order to secure an indictment for which probable cause did not otherwise exist. The individual defendants initiated a prosecution of John Edward Dawson Jr. without probable cause which resulted in Dawson being incarcerated and deprived of his freedom."
The Monroe County Sheriff's Office investigated the murder of Troy Green after his body was found in May 2006. Henry, the lead detective on the case, started considering Dawson a suspect in 2007, according to the complaint.
Dawson claims the Monroe County Sheriff's Department searched his home and cars in January 2007, but found no evidence linking him to Green's murder.
Nevertheless, the Sheriff's Department seized Dawson's truck and other belongings, and continued to consider him a prime suspect, according to the complaint.
"Sometime in 2007, Detective Henry visited the residence of [nonparty] Monte Cox," the complaint states. "Detective Henry had received information that Monte Cox owned a pistol similar to a gun that was believed to have been in Troy Green's possession at the time of his disappearance.
"Detective Henry questioned Monte Cox about the pistol and how Cox had acquired it. Cox told detective Henry that he had purchased the gun shortly after Green's disappearance from someone named 'Dirty Eddie' at the Reagan Station flea market. Cox was clear that 'Dirty Eddie' was not John Edward Dawson Jr.
"Detective Henry was not satisfied with Monte Cox's statement and offered to assist a friend of Cox's that was in prison if Cox would change his statement to indicate he had purchased the gun from John Edward Dawson Jr.
"When Monte Cox expressed hesitation about changing his statement, Detective Henry assured Cox that was the way things were done in Monroe County. Detective Henry continued to speak with Cox and convinced him to change his statement to implicate John Edward Dawson Jr. Detective Henry's statement demonstrates that his actions were accepted by Monroe County, Tenn. and that similar action had become so widespread as to constitute a custom."
After Dawson was indicted on criminal charges unrelated to Green's murder, he was taken to jail in Monroe County and the court appointed counsel to represent him, according to the complaint.
"Sometime after John Edward Dawson Jr. was placed in the custody of the Monroe County Sheriff's Department and was incarcerated at the Monroe County Jail, Detective Henry entered into a scheme with [nonparty] Todd Sweet, Dawson's cellmate at the Monroe County Jail, in an attempt to surreptitiously gain information from John Edward Dawson Jr. regarding the murder of Troy Green," the complaint states.
"Detective Henry created two fictitious attorneys, Paul Harris and Neil Fink, and worked with Todd Sweet to lead John Edward Dawson Jr. to believe that Fink and Harris were his lawyers and were representing him with respect to his pending criminal charges.
"Detective Henry directed Sweet to question John Edward Dawson Jr. about the murder of Troy Green and instructed Sweet on subjects he should discuss with Dawson. Todd Sweet was acting as an agent of the Monroe County Sheriff's Office when he conducted the desired questioning and conversations with Dawson.
"Detective Henry and other officers of the Monroe County Sheriff's Office caused a hidden recording device to be placed in the cell shared by John Edward Dawson Jr. and Todd Sweet. The recording device was hidden in a pair of shoes sent to Sweet by the fictitious attorneys Harris and Fink, and was intended to record Sweet's questioning of Dawson as directed by Detective Henry.
"The questioning of John Edward Dawson Jr. by Sweet was conducted without notice to Dawson's appointed attorney, without Dawson being informed of Sweet's role as an agent of the Monroe County Sheriff's Office, and without advising Dawson of his Miranda rights.
"Detective Henry created a series of letters from fictitious attorneys Paul Harris and Neil Fink to John Edward Dawson Jr. Detective Henry created letterhead for Harris and Fink which represented that the senders were attorneys from Detroit, Michigan.
"Detective Henry provided these letters to Monroe County Jail Corrections Officer Ronnie Belcher and other officers for delivery to John Edward Dawson Jr. The letters indicated that they were sent by an attorney and were treated as legal mail by the Monroe County Jail. Detective Henry used these letters to communicate with John Edward Dawson Jr. without having the communications read by jail staff and without Dawson having the benefit of counsel.
"Inmate Sweet and Detective Henry also spoke on the telephone with regularity. Detective Henry played the role of the fictitious lawyers Paul Harris and Neil Fink and would provide instructions to Sweet. Following these conversations, Sweet would convey messages to John Edward Dawson Jr. from the fictitious lawyers."
A Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agent and the district attorney found out about the scheme in late 2008 and called Sheriff Bivens about it, but Bivens allowed the scheme to continue, according to the complaint.
"In December 2008, Detective Henry sent a letter from the fictitious attorney Neil Fink directly to John Edward Dawson Jr.," the complaint states. "The letter stated, in part, 'I am preparing for a meeting with the District Attorney to get your red Chevy truck released,' 'your release will take place sometime this week,' and 'do not discuss this matter or your release with any other attorneys or family.'
"Detective Henry sent a total of six letters to John Edward Dawson Jr. purporting to be from fictitious attorneys Paul Harris and Neil Fink. Five of the letters were addresses to Todd Sweet and one letter was addressed directly to John Edward Dawson Jr. However, all of the letters were intended for and directed to John Edward Dawson Jr. Dawson's lawyer was not informed of any of these communications.
"In January 2009 the Monroe County grad jury indicted John Edward Dawson Jr. on two additional charges unrelated to the death of Troy Green. John Edward Dawson Jr. was arraigned on those charges and appointed counsel.
"Sometime in January 2009 Detective Brannon had an in-person meeting with John Edward Dawson Jr. at the Monroe County Jail. This meeting was at the behest of James Patrick Henry and occurred in a visitor's booth at the jail.
"When Detective Brannon arrived at the jail, a corrections officer told John Edward Dawson Jr. that his lawyer (referring to Detective Brannon) had arrived to meet with him.
"Detective Brannon had removed all items from his person that identified him as a deputy sheriff and borrowed a suit jacket/sports coat from another law enforcement officer in order to reinforce his image as an attorney.
"During the meeting, Detective Brannon acted as if he was an associate of the fictitious lawyers Harris and Fink, and told John Edward Dawson Jr. that there was a potential [sic] he would be released from jail the following Saturday. Detective Brannon also told Dawson that the red Chevy truck that had been seized in January 2007 during the execution of the search warrant was about to be released to Dawson's wife.
"Detective Brannon did not advise John Edward Dawson Jr. of his Miranda rights or disclose his affiliation with the Monroe County Sheriff's Office before speaking with Dawson. Dawson's lawyer was not informed of the meeting." (Parentheses in complaint).
Dawson says Henry released his truck to his wife after the meeting to reinforce his belief in the fictitious attorneys.
He says Henry and Brannon told him not to cooperate with his lawyer, and to ask his lawyer to postpone his cases as many times as possible.
Dawson claims Bivens knew about the letters and the recording device, as well as other misconduct, but failed to investigate or discipline his deputies.
In 2009, Dawson's court-appointed attorney discovered the deputies' scheme after asking for a mental evaluation due to Dawson's refusal to cooperate with her, according to the complaint.
Dawson claims that Henry, Brannon and Bivens testified about their involvement in the scheme, but the sheriff still did nothing to put an end to it, saying that "he did not 'see a problem' with the conduct of his deputies."
And though the deputies knew of other suspects and had information that proved Dawson was not guilty, they ignored those leads, according to the complaint.
Dawson claims the defendants also received information that Green had been seen alive in another county after disappearing from Monroe County, but never followed up on that information.
"Detective Henry, Detective Brannon, and/or other employees of the Monroe County Sheriff's Department asked, encouraged, influenced, coerced, or deceived at least two other people, in addition to Monte Cox, in order to secure false evidence against John Edward Dawson Jr.," the complaint adds. "In some instances this was done in exchange for assistance, money, or other benefit."
A Monroe County grand jury indicted Dawson for Green's murder in January 2010, based on false evidence submitted by the defendants, according to the complaint.
One year later, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals dismissed the previous indictments against Dawson, finding that the "egregious actions of the law enforcement officers in this case substantially and profoundly interfered with [John Edward Dawson Jr.'s] right to counsel under the federal and state constitutions."
Dawson was released from jail in July 2012, after a Monroe County court dismissed the murder charges against him based on "'disturbing' evidence of the actions of the law enforcement officers," according to the complaint.
Dawson seeks compensatory and punitive damages for civil rights violations, failure to train, supervise and discipline, and emotional distress.
He is represented by Ashley Shudan with Ford & Nichols of Loudon, Tenn.