When the family of Gussie Vann approached local attorney Robin Flores in 2012 to file a federal lawsuit against McMinn County, Tenn., they were three years too late.
But it took a ruling by the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals released Wednesday for them to learn that fact.
The sixth circuit's opinion upheld a local federal judge's ruling in May that dismissed Vann's $20 million lawsuit against McMinn County for alleged civil rights abuses.
Flores said Wednesday that he'd not yet talked to his client, but he doubted he could continue the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 1992, Vann was arrested in the rape and murder of his 8-year-old daughter, Necia Vann.
He was held for 48 hours and later alleged he was coerced into a confession. Police released him for a few days before again arresting him and holding him in jail for 10 months without allowing him to see a lawyer.
Vann argued that treatment led to his 1994 conviction and death sentence.
In 2008, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals somewhat agreed and set aside the conviction.
But it wasn't until 2011 that the state prosecutor agreed to dismiss charges against Vann.
That's when Robin Flores argued that the clock started ticking for Vann to file a civil lawsuit.
One month before the deadline, Vann's supporters hired Flores, who then sued McMinn County for alleged civil rights violations.
But McMinn County's Knoxville-based attorney Arthur Knight III, pored over the documents, case law and statutes and had a different starting point for Vann's lawsuit -- when Vann's rights allegedly first were violated in 1992, and if not that year then 2008, when the conviction was set aside.
"That just seems contrary to common sense because the case is still not over," Flores said Wednesday. He argued that until the charges were dismissed in 2011, Vann still technically faced possible execution.
Local U.S. District Judge Curtis Collier agreed with Knight and dismissed the lawsuit in May.
Flores appealed, but the Sixth Circuit agreed with Collier.
In dry legal language the circuit judges wrote, "The authorities that he cites for this proposition are not persuasive."
Flores said he commonly sees clients who may have been charged wrongfully in criminal court but who did not know they had the ability to file a civil lawsuit.
Often the criminal defense attorney who represented them focused solely on the criminal charge and didn't tell the client about all of the options, Flores said.
"Unfortunately, ignorance of the law is not a defense," Flores said. "A layperson would have a very difficult time understanding this."
Flores had not yet spoken with Vann, who is in prison at Morgan County Correctional Complex on a separate conviction of incest. Vann has a parole hearing related to that offense scheduled for October 2014.
Contact staff writer Todd South at email@example.com or 423-757-6347.