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Two Wrongful Arrest Cases Show That Suspicion Is Not Enough in Our Justice System

It is difficult for many of us to empathize with people accused of crimes who complain about how the police have treated them.

This lack of empathy probably occurs because ordinary people don’t think they will be in situations like those accused of crimes.

If that includes you, allow me to introduce Anthony Watson, 43, of Coralville, and Jennifer Pritchard, also 43, of Fort Dodge.

Their experiences should be a wake-up call. We should be asking government leaders, especially in Johnson and Hamilton counties, a bunch of ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions – questions about the events and decisions that led to these two people being imprisoned and their disrupted life.

It is not a mystery exercise. The taxpayers are paying Watson and Pritchard a total of $815,000 to compensate them for harm caused by the court system.

This is not meant to criticize judicial officers as a whole. We owe them our gratitude. But the actions of a few officers and prosecutors in these cases are undermining public trust, respect and faith in our justice system — just as surely as respect for Texas police was eroded by the video of cops loitering in the hallway. school in Uvalde, Texas, while 21 students and teachers were killed in the hallway.

The disturbing events involving Watson and Pritchard were recently brought to light by dogged reporting by Trish Mehaffey of the Cedar Rapids Gazette and Kelby Wingert of the Fort Dodge Messenger. Their articles and the Iowa court records help us understand why the treatment of Watson and Pritchard is a perversion of the Iowa justice system.

In the American justice system, we don’t lock people in on a hunch and then we look for evidence.

Watson stopped to refuel at a Casey’s in Iowa City in December 2017. Within minutes, police officer Travis Graves arrived, having been dispatched to verify a report of a reckless driver in the area.

Watson never argued with the officer. He never tried to run away. Whatever Graves asked him to do, Watson complied. But Graves was convinced that Watson was impaired by alcohol, marijuana or another controlled drug.

Graves asked him to perform a series of field sobriety tests and then give two breathalyzer samples. Each time, the tests showed that there was no evidence of impairment.

Graves had Coralville Police Officer Jeff Reinhard come to the Iowa City station and perform a visual assessment of Watson for signs of drug use. Reinhard had been trained to make these subjective assessments. Reinhard concluded that Watson was under the influence of marijuana.

Graves then asked Watson to give a urine sample. This test showed no evidence to support Reinhard’s conclusion. Nonetheless, Graves charged Watson with drunk driving and locked him up in Johnson County Jail. The charging documents do not mention that Watson passed the balance, breath and urine tests.

At the time, Watson was on parole for an unrelated charge. The Iowa City officer informed the parole officer of the arrest, knowing it would ensure Watson would remain in jail until the OWI case came to trial.

A month after his arrest, not the day after the arrest, police sent Watson’s urine sample to an out-of-state lab to perform more sophisticated testing for the presence of controlled drugs. These tests also showed no evidence of drugs, including cannabis.

But it would be another five weeks before Watson was released from prison. Another month will pass before prosecutors drop the OWI charge. They noted in court documents, “anticipated evidentiary problems fatal to the prosecution; breath and toxicology tests were negative for alcohol and/or controlled substances. »

By the time the case was dismissed, Watson had been heavily punished: he spent nearly three months in jail. He lost his job and his apartment during this time.

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Jennifer Pritchard’s experience is similar. She spent 23 days in Hamilton County Jail in 2019 after being charged with aiding and abetting attempted murder.

Pritchard was accused of driving a car belonging to a friend, Jacob Adams, when the two allegedly followed Brianna Purcell as she drove near Stratford. Purcell accused Adams of shooting at her from the moving car and then at her motorhome while she was inside.

Purcell and Adams had what Deputy Sheriff David Turpen called a “volatile past.” There was also a fundamental problem with Purcell’s allegations: His story changed dramatically during interviews with Hamilton County Sheriff’s officers.

In Deputy Turpen’s reports, Purcell never mentioned being followed or shooting her. She told him several times that she was in the RV and that she had never seen a car or a shooter.

Her story changed when she was questioned by Sheriff Doug Timmons. She then said the first shots came as she was followed by a car driven by Pritchard, with Adams shooting at her from the passenger seat.

Based on this interview, attempted murder charges were filed against Pritchard and Adams. They were unable to post $500,000 cash-only bail, so they were jailed.

When Pritchard was questioned the day after her arrest, she said she was working at Fort Dodge, 32 miles away, at the time officials said the shooting took place. A colleague verified Pritchard’s alibi, as did the security video.

In asking for the charges to be dismissed, the prosecutor said it was “upon further consideration and in the interests of justice”.

If the events described in court documents in both cases weren’t enough to stoke public outrage, the wrongful arrest lawsuits by Watson and Pritchard have fueled public backlash. The Iowa City and Coralville city councils together agreed to pay Watson $390,000. Hamilton County agreed to pay Pritchard $425,000.

No one is suggesting that officers should not have thoroughly investigated the allegations against Watson and Pritchard. But two people with jobs were locked up for weeks, depriving them of their freedom – while officers tried to gather evidence to prove the suspicions and allegations.

This verification should take place before people are imprisoned. In the American justice system, we don’t lock people in on a hunch and then we look for evidence.

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