Things come in threes, they say--whoever "they" are. I sincerely hope not. Before eight o'clock on this gloomy Saturday morning, I had read two articles dealing with this topic, and I sincerely hope not to see a third. The two I read did an adequate enough job of raising my blood pressure.
The topic? Mistaken identity. Men arrested, held in jail, brutalized, lives destroyed, all because they were mistaken for a wanted sex offender.
And the most horrible and unconscionable element of all is the subtle, sub-textual inference that all that happened to them would be "okay" if they had been the sex offenders for whom they were mistaken.
Case number one occurred in North Carolina, and it took only four months for charges to be dismissed against Tommy Wall, but those four months were all it took for him to be fired from his job of 23 years and to be financially devastated to the point of losing his home and everything he had, including what was most important, his reputation. And why was he arrested? How could this confusion occur? Law enforcement had video of the man they sought, and he was bald. Mr. Wall is bald. How he got on the radar of law enforcement is not revealed, but he was arrested and held in jail for four months because he is bald. His attorney, the third assigned to his case and obviously the first to actually investigate the charges, noted that the video of the bald man actually sought by police showed a large mole on the top of his head. Mr. Wall had no such mole.
"The investigation should have been done a lot better," Webb [his attorney] said. "He has a big, big obstacle to overcome, because once you’ve been targeted and tainted with such a crime as this, it's going to follow you wherever you go."
The second case is even more egregious for several reasons. The wrongly imprisoned man is mentally ill. He was in a Georgia county jail for 525 days--almost a year and a half. He was raped and brutalized while under the custody and "protection" of the Fulton County Jail. And based on all available information, he was arrested because, when he was stopped by police, whether for an actual traffic violation or not is not made clear, he could not produce his driver's license; he is African-American; and his first name is Randy. Law enforcement were looking for a wanted sex offender who was African American and whose first name was Randy. They decided that they had just found their man.
He insisted he was not Randy Williams, the wanted man, but Randy Wiggins. And insisted. And insisted for a year and a half. And for a year and a half, Fulton County law enforcement and the district attorney's office and judicial system combined did not, according to all available information, do a fingerprint comparison between the Randy they were holding in jail and the Randy they thought they had arrested. The truth did not come out until Mr. Wiggins was taken to a hospital for a mental health evaluation.
Both men are free now. Both men will most likely bring legal action against the respective authorities, and I for one hope they get every penny they ask for and then some.
But what I hope for even more is that this not happen again. If a man were wrongly arrested for murder, there would be no immediate assumption of guilt, especially on the part of employers and others who know him. When the truth came out, it would be a case of mistaken identity, boy, the police can be stupid sometimes, and that would be it.
When a man is arrested for a sexual crime, be it a rightful or a wrongful arrest, the damage is done. Jobs are lost. Friends and acquaintances often flee. Brutalization occurs in jails and prisons, violence that is seen by many as proper consequences of committing--or even thought to have committed--a sexual crime.
What will it take for my hope to become reality? I don't know, but law enforcement must be accountable for their actions. They must take every precaution to assure they are not arresting, charging, and detaining an innocent person. A simple check to see if a bald head is sporting a large mole, a simple fingerprint comparison--is that too much to ask?
If the charge is for a sexual crime, apparently so.