Huffpost Crime

St. Louis Jails The Wrong People. Public Officials Shrug.

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Attention-grabbing lede to this remarkable story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

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.

The paper found that over the last seven years, more than 100 people have been wrongly arrested in St. Louis. I haven't seen any similar figures from other cities to know if that's high or low -- a little over one mistaken arrest per month doesn't seem particularly scandalous in a city with a high crime rate -- although the Post-Dispatch reporters note that they only found those 100 through limited information from a small sampling of cases. The problem is that the story only gets worse from here.

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.

It's hard to understand how it could possibly take an average of three weeks to clear up a mistaken arrest. Or how, in nearly every mistaken arrest, police ignored fingerprint evidence suggesting at the outset that they had nabbed the wrong person. Since the paper started investigating, city officials have become defensive and opaque, and, of course, have started blaming the victims. Perhaps the most offensive statement came from Susan Ryan, a "public relations consultant"* for prosecutor Jennifer Joyce, who told the paper that this wasn't a particularly pressing issue because "the problems mainly affect people already 'in the system.'"

Ah. It's only those people. Well never mind, then.

Let's get back to McNeal. Here's what happened after her arrest:

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.

Of the public officials interviewed for the piece, Eddie Roth, a senior aide to St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, comes off the most callous. He told the paper, "I worry about a lot of things. I don’t worry about this." As for people like McNeal, Roth said, "there’s almost always complicity on the part of the person who spent more time (in jail) than they should have.” He then compared the arrests to a doctor who amputates the wrong limb, adding, "Mistakes happen."

According to the Post-Dispatch, a class-action suit is coming. The cost of fighting that lawsuit -- and any award or settlement -- will of course be borne by St. Louis taxpayers, not the indifferent public officials and their flacks who insist that innocent people spending weeks in jail isn't worth getting all upset about.

Thanks to David Cay Johnston for the tip.

(*More questions, here: Why does the (social media-savvy) chief prosecutor for the city of St. Louis have a "public relations consultant?" Who's paying for her services?)

UPDATE: Eddie Roth has written a response to the Post-Dispatch. If you have a Facebook account, you can read it here.

Filed by Radley Balko