Shannon Renee McNeal was torn from her screaming children by police who were seeking a woman with a similar name — a woman who they should have known had been murdered seven months before. A clerical mistake set up the arrest, sloppy attention to fingerprints put her behind bars and months of indifference to the error cost McNeal her home, $15,000 and, for a while, her job driving a Metro bus.
Yet she may be luckier than scores of others who have been wrongfully arrested and spent weeks, even months, trapped behind bars in a broken St. Louis city justice system.
The Post-Dispatch has identified 100 people arrested in error over the past seven years. Collectively, they spent more than 2,000 days in jail — an average of about three weeks each. One man alone was incarcerated 211 days. About a quarter were held repeatedly — one of them, five times — and 15 were locked up while the right suspect was already behind bars.
Almost all the mistakes could have been prevented — or at least fixed immediately — had authorities paid attention to what fingerprints tried to tell them from the start.
Officials’ reaction to McNeal: It was her own fault, because if her name had not been in a criminal justice database, the mistake could not have been made.
Confronted 21 months ago by reporters with examples of several wrongful arrests, Jennifer Joyce, the circuit attorney, and Eddie Roth, a senior aide to Mayor Francis Slay, expressed concern and pledged reforms.
But their response has hardened since the deeper Post-Dispatch investigation.
“I worry about a lot of things. I don’t worry about this,” Roth said in a recent interview. He said he has faith in the system’s ability to correct mistakes.
He insisted that wrongful arrests are merely a byproduct of a system in which suspects have a lot of problems, including “telling the truth.”
The Post-Dispatch examination found several recurring problems:
- Police failed to verify the identity of people they arrested, especially those who provided someone else’s name. In almost every wrongful arrest found, police and other officials overlooked a fingerprint report warning that they either had the wrong person or someone who used an alias.
- The protests of those wrongly arrested often were ignored.
- Officials failed to differentiate between the people who gave false names and the people who suffered for it.
- Authorities downplayed the cases where their own mistake caused a wrongful arrest.
- Officials failed to correct errors in records, setting up repeated wrongful arrests and leaving authorities unsure of who they were holding or who committed which past crimes.
Roth, Joyce and Police Chief Sam Dotson questioned the accuracy of the newspaper’s overall research but provided no data to refute it, even after being given three months to examine the material. They downplayed the significance of the problem and said mistakes were extremely rare in a city with more than 30,000 arrests each year.
Their denials come 15 years after the police department was put on notice by a federal jury when it awarded $10,000 in damages against a St. Louis police officer for failure to heed a fingerprint mismatch warning.
Now, the city and department are back in federal court, facing two civil suits and a potential class action. The two attorneys planning the class action said they have discovered more than 80 wrongful arrest cases with their own research and believe the actual number could be hundreds.
In some other cities, lawsuits have saddled officials with four- to five-figure settlements or judgments for each case.
The consequences of arrest mistakes can devastate lives, as in McNeal’s case.
They fall heavily upon people with little political voice. Many are black and have criminal records for misdemeanors and low-level felonies.
Susan Ryan, a public relations consultant for Joyce, emphasized as much in insisting the problems mainly affect people already “in the system.”
“That’s an important note for citizens to understand,” she added. The average person “isn’t driving down the street and being stopped and arrested for something he didn’t do.”
When asked whether she was saying people with criminal records are treated differently, Ryan clarified: “I’m not saying that at all. I think that all three agencies would tell you that they take this very seriously, and they don’t want anybody wrongly arrested.”
But she and Roth later reiterated her initial point.
Dotson noted, “Ultimately, it is our job to make sure we have the right person.”
Adolphus Pruitt, president of the St. Louis chapter of the NAACP, said the impact can be immense, costing victims their jobs and starting a “negative domino effect” of consequences.
“If you calculate the psychological and emotional side of being arrested, hauled away and caged for some period of time — and you know you’re innocent and you can’t get anybody to listen to you, it reinforces the very negative polarizing perception that African-Americans have on the justice system and law enforcement system,” he said.
“It reinforces every negative that they’ve heard, thought and imagined.”
‘TREATED LIKE A BUG’
Authorities knew when they issued an arrest warrant in 2009 for Shannon Raquel McNeal, 23, that she missed her court date on a drug charge because she had been murdered, according to her lawyer, Kristy Ridings. But they went ahead, pending arrival of a death certificate.
They did not realize that in 2007 a clerk had picked the wrong name off a computer screen. That mistake caused police to look for Shannon Renee McNeal, 37.
The warrant popped up when Ferguson police stopped McNeal on a traffic violation as she was driving her two children and their young friend to the St. Louis Zoo. Despite her protests, she was handcuffed in front of the crying youngsters and taken to jail.
Two routine fingerprint comparisons — one in Ferguson and one in St. Louis — showed she was not the person wanted, but she was booked anyway in a humiliating process that forced her to shower in front of two female guards and be sprayed with a delousing solution.
Not only was she arrested wrongly, she said later, “Now I’m treated like a bug.”
She spent more than a day in custody, assigned by the crowded city workhouse to sleep in a “boat,” a makeshift plastic bed, beside a toilet.
As McNeal fought to clear her name, Metro found out about the arrest and she lost her job for months. She also lost her car and had to leave her home in Northwoods and move in with friends.
McNeal, who has since returned to her maiden name of Jolliff, figured she had been the only victim. She said she was stunned to learn of so many others.
“But just from what I went through,” McNeal added, “it seems likely. It was like they didn’t care at all.”
LIES AND MISTAKES
Dotson blamed criminals’ “clear intent to cause confusion” for difficulty in establishing someone’s identity.
Roth said when wrongful arrests take place, “there’s almost always complicity on the part of the person who spent more time (in jail) than they should have.”
Many of the mistakes indeed are the legacy of lies told by people who use the names of brothers or cousins or friends to escape trouble.
Yet it’s often not the liars who pay the price.
Earlier this year, Cortez Cooper spent more than a month in jail because his brother, Cecil Cooper, used his name during a drug arrest before being released pending charges.
Despite a fingerprint report within 21 hours showing that the wanted man was really Cecil, an arrest warrant was issued two months later for Cortez. He was jailed for 36 days.
In 41 of the wrongful arrests the Post-Dispatch uncovered, evidence showed that an alias was used. But only 11 of them had some allegation that the victim of the mistake had used an alias. Clear evidence existed in even fewer.
In multiple cases, a clerical error or another mistake by authorities led to the wrong information on an arrest warrant or charging documents.
In roughly half of all the cases, no explanation was given, but many of those wrongfully arrested had the same or similar name or were related to the person actually being sought.
Typically, the victims had routine contact with police, such as a traffic stop, when they were arrested on another person’s warrant.
Jonathan Crews, 31, serving 15 years for assaulting a prison guard, was among criminals who told reporters the system is easy to fool.
He said he has repeatedly tricked police by using the names of his brother and childhood best friend. “All it takes is full name and date of birth, no Social Security number,” he said. Crews said he has signed personal recognizance bonds with others’ names and triggered at least one mistaken arrest.
Pruitt, of the NAACP, said he cannot understand how the system can be vulnerable to simple lies, noting, “I find it hard to believe that everybody using an alias is using one of somebody that looks close to them.”
Most wrongful arrests could have been avoided if officials simply had checked the results after fingerprinting the original suspect.
Fingerprints on most arrests are sent to the Missouri Highway Patrol for comparison to its database. Any discrepancies are emailed by the city police identification unit — typically within a day — to arresting officers, the jail, the sheriff’s department and prosecutors.
In cases discovered by reporters, those warnings were ignored — not just the first time around, but also when the wrong person was subsequently arrested and held.
And in one instance, police didn’t even need to examine the fingerprints, just count them.
A vehicle theft warrant should have gone out for William Lamont Willis, who has only eight fingers. Instead, William Earl Willis, who has all 10 digits, was charged and arrested at least three times, despite multiple fingerprint comparisons.
He was one of several individuals with physical differences that authorities could easily have noticed; a permanently closed eye, for instance, or someone’s own name tattooed on his arm.
Milton Harden was arrested five times on his old friend Courtney Carroll’s domestic assault case, even though officials ostensibly sorted out the problem each time. Harden spent 100 days in jail total. During much of that time, he was being held as Carroll on the assault case while he was also being held as himself on his own cases.
“I think the really damning evidence is these multiple arrests,” said James Hacking, one of the lawyers planning the class action suit.
Initial mistakes sometimes led to almost impenetrable confusion, with the wrong people arrested over and over and defendants’ names and dates of birth shifting in jail and court records.
Take the case of David Whitt, who used the name of James Whitt in a theft arrest. Despite a fingerprint mismatch, James was charged. Somebody, it’s not clear from files who, pleaded guilty. Then both men were arrested for probation violations and held at the same time on the same case.
After the mistake was recognized, the court inexplicably began changing the name on the case back and forth between the men and issued warrants for both. David ultimately answered to the charge, but the file remains under James’ name.
Arrest warrants sometimes remain active weeks or months after the right person is in custody — or, in McNeal’s case, dead. An audit showed that in February 2012, 15 percent of the 1,972 inmates in the city jails were still listed as wanted on St. Louis warrants.
Defense lawyers said sometimes warrants are not dropped even after their clients are sentenced. So someone on probation could end up arrested anew for the same crime.
Innocent people caught in this vortex beg for help from anyone who will listen. But jails and court dockets are full of liars. Criminal justice workers are left to trust that safeguards in their system work.
Judges’ exasperation is sometimes reflected in their court orders.
One, Judge Michael David, freed Sylvester Williams from another man’s drug-related case, noting that “even a casual review” of the photos of the two “would clearly indicate to any person (even one of limited mental capacity) that these are not the same two people.”
Faced with yet another wrongful arrest of the 10-fingered William Willis, Judge Joan Moriarty provided emphasis in a release order that said he was “determined NOT to be the same person charged in this case. MOST NOTICEABLY the William Willis currently held has TEN fingers. The William Willis charged in the above case has LESS THAN TEN fingers.”
Nobody in St. Louis keeps track of wrongful arrests, but officials are quick to minimize them, no matter the number.
After the Post-Dispatch inquired in 2012 about finding evidence of four cases with errors, Roth, then Slay’s chief performance officer and a former Post-Dispatch editorial writer, said that problems, while rare, deserved “focused, sustained attention.”
Joyce, the circuit attorney, tweeted, “Reassuring: St. Louis = 4, Denver = 600 mistaken arrests.”
That referred to an ACLU lawsuit alleging 600 instances in the Colorado capital over seven years, a number now grown to 650.
Roth created a multi-agency team he called PIVOT, but it was quietly dismantled after he decided the problem was mainly with the police and jailers.
An auditor for the courts produced a 22-page report recommending changes in technology and practices that it said increase the risk of misidentification. Circuit Clerk Jane Schweitzer threw out the report, deeming it “goofy.”
The Post-Dispatch persisted to measure the scope of the problem, a difficult task because no central record of such mistakes exists, and, under Missouri law, dismissal of a charge seals the case file.
Prosecutors, police and the mayor’s office first ignored questions and public records requests, then provided little cooperation. Joyce complained that her office spent more than 100 “attorney hours” researching the newspaper’s findings. In the end, she remarked that most of the cases were “old,” and shared conclusions on only seven.
Roth promised to find out how many cases represented “a nightmare scenario” of someone with no criminal history or aliases being wrongfully jailed for more than 24 hours. Ultimately, he provided no number. He said it appeared, though, that wrongful arrests were “almost to the vanishing point.”
Reporters found the 100 that happened over roughly seven years by using limited information that amounts to no more than a sample.
Adjusted for population, those cases represent a rate of about one-third Denver’s. But if the lawyers suing the city are correct in their highest estimates, St. Louis could top Denver, per capita.
The St. Louis per capita rate already exceeds that of Los Angeles County, where in 2011 the sheriff’s office listed 1,480 wrongful arrests over five years in a jurisdiction of 10 million people.
The magnitude here distresses Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, who said, “One is bad enough. A pattern is really bad and needs to be addressed immediately.”
He noted, “There is just no excuse for having the wrong person in custody for a day, let alone a few days or months.”
Mittman said it is like a hospital that operates on 30 people and boasts of having “only” one accidental amputation.
Roth separately used a similar analogy to defend the lapses, saying, “Sometimes people amputate the wrong leg at Barnes-Jewish. Mistakes happen.”
In health care, an accidental amputation is on the list of what are called “never events,” because they are never supposed to occur — and carry serious consequences if they do.
“There needs to be systemic change,” Mittman said. “I think if you want a definition of a constitutional rights or civil liberties violation, this is it.”
A HIDDEN INJUSTICE
Evidence suggests even more mistakes in St. Louis.
For example, sheriff’s courtroom ledgers reveal dozens of other cases in which a deputy wrote “wrong person,” “wrong defendant” or “arrested in error,” but corresponding court files show no sign of a problem. Police said they void 30 to 40 arrests each year for reasons that could include identity errors.
Roth recently insisted that “the overwhelming majority” of wrongful arrests here are resolved within hours. If that’s true, it would mean the cases identified by the Post-Dispatch — all taking place later in the process, after a judge ordered a person’s fingerprints be run because of identity questions — are just a fraction of what’s really out there.
Samuel Walker, a police accountability expert and emeritus professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, calls it “one of those hidden forms of injustice.”
“Our whole system victimizes people who are poor and don’t have resources,” he said. “If it happens to a prominent person, of course you would hear about it immediately.”
Mark Silverstein, an ACLU lawyer in Denver, agreed, saying, “I’m convinced that this must be a relatively undiscovered issue in any large city’s criminal justice system. I think it goes on under the radar.”
Defense lawyers said the newspaper’s findings are not a surprise, given the problems they see.
St. Louis’ top public defender, Mary Fox, said even if the proportion of incidents is small, “it’s a very high number” to those affected.
“These aren’t the people who complain loudly,” she noted, “… because they’re used to not being listened to.”
Her deputy, Rick Kroeger, called it “disgusting” that officials discount victims with criminal histories.
Sharon Kennell’s story of wrongful arrest in 1995 is old but significant: She eventually collected money in a lawsuit because St. Louis police didn’t heed the notification sent after she was fingerprinted.
She was arrested on a warrant for her sister and jailed for six days while her protests — and the fingerprint report exonerating her — were ignored.
Counts of her resulting lawsuit that accused the city and police department were dismissed, but a jury in 1998 awarded her $10,000 from a police officer because of “deliberate indifference” to the warning. An appellate court affirmed it.
“I thought they fixed that after my situation,” Kennell said in a recent interview. “If you’re telling them, ‘I’m not that person,’ they should have some kind of system to find out who that person is, right then and there.”
Kennell had never before been in jail. She was released only after her sister’s parole officer pointed out the error.
Kennell said she understands that police have a difficult job, but they have to understand “everybody is not a criminal.”
The current lawsuits are expected to focus on the same issue of ignored fingerprint notifications. But Roth dismissed the litigation as a money grab.
The lawsuits “aren’t really about righting a wrong,” he said. “They are about exploiting the complexities of … a system that is sound and that functions admirably under difficult circumstances.”
Roth, Joyce and Dotson also said it is not productive to focus on past mistakes.
The newspaper’s list reinforced “some of the things that we already know” Roth said. But he added, “There are too many details that are unknowable after the passage of time. They evaporate and inevitably lead to speculation that can misinform judgment.”
Teneil Kellerman, a lawyer suing on behalf of Travis Jones, who was held in error for 76 days, said officials seem to be banking on a jury deciding “three months of my client’s life aren’t worth much.”
She added, “I think that this is a general, systematic failure, and I think everybody knew about it for years.”
Hacking, one of the lawyers planning the class action, said interest in the issue “waxes and wanes,” then “crests again when a lawsuit is filed” or a newspaper article appears.
“If you don’t admit there’s a problem,” he said, “it’s just going to keep going.”
Verntez Jones said he gets on the ground any time he is stopped by police, because if you add the crimes he didn’t commit to those he did, they see him as dangerous.
Multiple arrestee Harden presumes that if he is stopped for a traffic violation, he will be held until authorities figure out — again — that he is not his friend Carroll.
Karif McCreight, concerned about passing down wrongful-arrest problems that have jailed him for weeks, hesitated to give his newborn son his name. He explained, “I don’t know how far this could go.”
Some people lose their jobs after being arrested and jailed, even if it’s a mistake, said attorney Craig Kessler. Many have to go to the police station repeatedly to erase erroneous charges from their record.
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years. And it’s impossible to straighten this out,” he lamented.
Kessler said he sometimes half-seriously suggests that mistakenly arrested defendants might be “better off” pleading guilty in minor cases and paying fines.
Hacking lamented that “once you are labeled, it sticks to you like tar paper. There’s not a way to fix it under the current system.”
He and a colleague, Jennifer Shoulberg, also warned of less obvious but broader consequences — such as wasted taxpayer money and a risk to public safety if police stop looking for the right criminal because they locked up someone else.
Pruitt, of the NAACP, said he hopes officials’ “lack of enthusiasm to fix this” is not a reflection of the fact that the wrongfully arrested are “predominantly black, lower income, under-served individuals.”
“If this was people from Ladue or folks from out of town attending the ball game, and they were white,” he said, officials “would fix it fairly quickly.”
Since her own downward spiral, McNeal said, she no longer discounts complaints by people who have been accused of crimes but proclaim their innocence.
“Up until that experience,” she explained, “I had faith in the justice system.”
KNOWING WHO IS WHO
In St. Louis County, officials say they insist that jailers not complete the booking process until the police ID unit delivers a “clear sheet” confirming identity. It takes no longer than an hour.
“Before they leave this room, we know exactly who they are,” said Tena Johnson, intake manager at the county jail in Clayton, which processes about 35,000 people each year.
Officials there said misdemeanor charges are sought against anyone caught using an alias. As of mid-September, about 70 had been caught at booking; last year’s total was 149.
County officials agreed to show reporters their process on the understanding that they were not judging other jurisdictions whose procedures, they said, may work equally well.
For about a year, county police have been using two mobile fingerprint machines that allow an officer on the street to confirm identity within 30 seconds through a state database.
“If we could snap our fingers and make the finances available, every police officer should have this — particularly in high-crime areas, because it is so common that people will lie to you,” said county Officer John Krebs, who demonstrated use of one.
The units cost $1,600 apiece, according to the highway patrol, which has 27 in circulation.
Mittman, with the ACLU, said the availability of simple solutions makes him question St. Louis’ practice of “blaming the victims.”
“St. Louis officials should learn from their counterparts elsewhere that it is not difficult to ascertain the identity of a person in their custody and to do so quickly,” he said.
Lawsuits and public scrutiny forced reforms in Los Angeles, including a promise to use mobile fingerprint readers and possible legislation to clean up California’s clogged database of arrest warrants.
Suits in Ventura County, Calif., and Denver triggered four- to five-figure monetary settlements per incident — and mechanisms to identify and address mistakes. Denver created an “arrest issues group.”
Although three individual plaintiffs settled in Denver for a total of $232,000, a larger group’s suit has stalled as it appeals a magistrate judge’s decision that may scuttle the case.
Quizzed by reporters, St. Louis officials said they also are considering changes. Some of the ideas have been talked about for years.
One would reduce the number of times information is manually entered into agencies’ separate computer systems. Another is use of mobile fingerprint readers, like the county’s. Roth said the purchase was delayed while the state decided “on uniform technical specifications and protocols.”
Ed Postawko, chief warrant officer for the city prosecutor, said he has been meeting with police and technology staff about the computers.
He also said that with 2,000 emails arriving a year to alert St. Louis officials to inconsistencies between booking information and fingerprints, officials are seeking a way to highlight those that signal a wrongful arrest.
Mike Guzy, a top sheriff’s administrator who formerly was on the St. Louis police force, said the arresting officer has the most information and ultimately should be responsible for acting on those emails.
But Joyce and Dotson said all parties should share the responsibility. “What we don’t want is a single point of failure,” the chief explained.
Dotson said he plans to have a mobile fingerprint device available for the patrol division soon, and one at each of the three area police stations to sort out identity issues before anyone gets to the jail.
Roth noted that he has added staff to the jail unit that processes new prisoners.
The St. Louis sheriff’s office, which guards courts and transports prisoners to and from jail, has no power to fix mistaken arrests. But as a result of the newspaper investigation, it recently adopted a form that aggrieved prisoners can file to seek attention. No one has used it yet.
Presiding Circuit Judge Philip Heagney said the Post-Dispatch investigation provides a valuable window on an important issue.
“Your research seems to suggest that there’s at least more that could be done, and if there is, we should do it,” said the judge, himself a former police officer. “Human beings make mistakes. The question is, do we have the procedures in place to see a mistake has been made and then take corrective action?”