published Tuesday, May 7th, 2013

Judge dismisses $20 million lawsuit against McMinn County

U.S. District Judge Curtis Collier
U.S. District Judge Curtis Collier
Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Gussie Vann sued too late.

On Monday a federal judge dismissed a $20 million civil rights lawsuit filed by Vann against McMinn County, Tenn., for unlawful arrest, detention and lack of access to a lawyer that he believes resulted in a death sentence, which later was dismissed.

The first hurdle Vann's attorney Robin Flores had to clear — did Vann file his lawsuit within the one-year limit?

U.S. District Judge Curtis Collier decided Vann didn't get it done in time.

But not before the judge and Flores bantered for at least 30 minutes about Reconstruction, extraordinary rendition and the recent Boston Marathon bombing as Flores tried to convince Collier that he was right.

In an hour and a half hearing on McMinn County's request to dismiss the lawsuit, Collier's questions centered on the civil rights violations claimed by Vann.

Through those questions Collier slow-walked Flores in a civics lesson on how Vann was arrested without probable cause, questioned without a lawyer and released only to be arrested again and held for 10 months without a bond hearing or an attorney to prepare for his 1994 death penalty trial.

Flores argued that all of those violations together resulted in Vann's conviction and death penalty sentence for the incest, rape and murder of his 8-year-old daughter in 1992.

On appeal a judge ruled in 2008 that Vann's conviction was invalid because his lawyers should have called a forensic expert in his defense.

The bulk of the prosecution's evidence was scientific, the judge said.

Arthur Knight III, a Knoxville-based attorney defending McMinn County, argued that any of the actions taken by the county's sheriff deputies didn't result in any evidence that was used at trial, therefore Vann's rights were not violated.

"I think this conversation is going on right now with the person arrested in Boston," Collier said, referring to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of two suspects in the April 15 bombing of the Boston Marathon.

Flores then turned the talk to Reconstruction and its relation to the 1983 Civil Rights Act and what Congress intended the Act to protect.

Flores also compared McMinn County holding his client for nearly 10 months without a bond hearing or an attorney to extraordinary rendition, an alleged practice by U.S. intelligence agencies against terrorism suspects.

The practice involves taking suspects to undisclosed locations and holding them without formal charges or legal representation, often in other nations.

"Mr. Vann was taken by police, your honor, and squirreled away," Flores said.

But the judge was not ruling on the merits of the rights violations, only whether Vann had filed his lawsuit within the statute of limitations.

Flores filed a lawsuit on behalf of Vann after meeting with his family in mid-2012.

Vann is being held in the Morgan County Correctional Complex on a separate incest conviction.

After the judge's ruling in 2009, prosecutors dropped the case and dismissed the charges in 2011.

Flores argued that the "clock started ticking" for statute of limitations in 2011.

But Knight disagreed and said it started, at the latest, in 2009.

Collier agreed with Knight and said the filing was too late.

After the hearing, Flores said the chances for an appeal are narrow, but he would talk with his client before deciding.

He has 30 days to file an appeal.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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