The U.S. Court of Appeals rejected a former Jefferson County prosecutor's claim of absolute immunity from lawsuits alleging evidence was fabricated in the Kansas case of a man wrongfully convicted of murder and incarcerated for 16 years.
Floyd Bledsoe was released from prison in 2015 after his brother wrote a suicide note admitting to the slaying, evidence that fit with DNA testing implicating Tom Bledsoe in the 1999 murder of Camille Arfmann, 14, north of Oskaloosa. Tom Bledsoe had initially confessed to the rape and murder, but recanted and testified against Floyd Bledsoe.
A three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court decision that former Jefferson County attorney Jim Vanderbilt couldn't shield himself from Floyd Bledsoe's lawsuit by asserting absolute immunity. Floyd Bledsoe claims he was framed for the murder by Vanderbilt and others in Jefferson County who conspired with Tom Bledsoe.
"We affirm the district court’s decision that defendant Vanderbilt does not enjoy absolute immunity from suit for allegedly fabricating evidence against plaintiff during the preliminary investigation of C.A.’s (Camille Arfmann) murder," the appellate court said.
The current Jefferson County attorney, Josh Ney, didn't respond to a request for comment about the Court of Appeals' ruling.
Alice Craig, an attorney in the Paul E. Wilson Project for Innocence and Post-Conviction Remedies at the University of Kansas' law school, said the 19-page Court of Appeals' decision could serve as a benchmark in handling any federal claim that Floyd Bledsoe's constitutional right to a fair trial was violated by Vanderbilt and others nearly 20 years ago.
"I thought it was a great opinion," said Craig, who was involved with Floyd Bledsoe's case at the state level. "I was really pleased with the court's outlining of the facts."
In November 1999, Camille Arfmann was assaulted, kidnapped and shot to death in rural Jefferson County. Tom Bledsoe voluntarily confessed to the murder and led authorities to the body hidden under dirt and plywood. He gave the murder weapon to law enforcement officers. Vanderbilt charged Tom Bledsoe with murder, but within days had dropped those charges and arrested Floyd Bledsoe for the crimes.
Floyd Bledsoe was convicted in 2000 of murder, kidnapping and indecent liberties with a child. He was sentenced to life in prison.
In 2015, forensic evidence excluded Floyd Bledsoe in terms of the rape. In response, Tom Bledsoe committed suicide and left a note that said, in part, "I sent an innocent man to prison. The Jefferson County police and county attorney Jim Vanderbilt made me do it."
Floyd Bledsoe was released from prison and became an advocate of a new state law providing compensation to wrongfully convicted Kansans. In May, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt announced a settlement with Floyd Bledsoe, who received $1 million, state health insurance for two years, and a certificate of innocence in terms of his arrest and conviction.
The settlement with the state didn't preclude Floyd Bledsoe from advancing claims in federal court regarding potential violation of his constitutional rights by Jefferson County officials, including Vanderbilt, who abandoned their case against Tom Bledsoe and worked to convict Floyd Bledsoe.
The U.S. Court of Appeals' ruling issued Aug. 16 said that "because of the schemers' allegedly fabricated evidence, a jury convicted" Floyd Bledsoe.