Nasheeba Adams was both ecstatic and sad as she stood outside of Philadelphia’s Criminal Justice Center courthouse recently hugging her son Tomayo McDuffy.
She was ecstatic because minutes earlier Philadelphia’s District Attorneys Office had withdrawn highly suspect charges against her nineteen-year-old son — charges that could have stuffed him in a prison cell for 80+ years. McDuffy, who wants to study engineering in college, experienced his eighteenth birthday while held in Philadelphia’s most violent adult pre-trial prison, as he was unable to post an onerous $500,000 bail for attempted murder and nine other charges.
Adams, while ecstatic that prosecutors withdrew as groundless all charges against her son, was also sad though, because the nearly two-year long battle to free her son forced her into bankruptcy and drove her family from their home thanks to lawyers fees and other expenses related to the effort to free McDuffy..
“I fought for his freedom and I got it! This taught me that you don’t ever give up,” Adams said at the courthouse. “From now on, every day will be Mother’s Day for me!”
Despite her joy, Adams carried a sinking feeling from the fact that Philadelphia police and prosecutors had repeatedly rejected strong evidence that the crime causing her son’s arrest never occurred –- evidence that was clear and compelling withing just weeks following McDuffy’s May 3, 2013 arrest.
The ordeal of Tomayo McDuffy is yet the latest example of the egregiously overzealous prosecutions that fuel mass incarceration across America. All too often prosecutors disregard their legal and ethical duty to ‘seek justice,’ and instead engage in relentless and unprincipled efforts to secure convictions irrespective of compelling evidence of innocence. Prosecutors recklessly ignore evidence of innocence because convictions –- not exonerations -– are the currency for promotions and other job performance perks.
Police and prosecutors in Philadelphia in this case readily accepted a highly improbable account from Adams’ next door neighbor, who falsely accused McDuffy of attempted murder. That neighbor, Maria Colon, even told authorities that her dog dialed 911 to alert police to McDuffy’s crime. They took her at her word.
Colon claimed that McDuffy and another man had kicked-in her basement door at 3 a.m. and then turned on her kitchen stove in an attempt to kill her, before her dog chased them away. Police and prosecutors accepted all that, despite the fact that Colon had a documented history of falsely accusing others, including falsely accusing her son of raping her and falsely accusing her daughter of assault.
McDuffy’s attorney, Bill Davis, said there was no evidence that anyone broke into Colon’s house through that basement door. “Our investigation concluded that door was damaged from the inside not from the outside. There is no evidence that any crime took place,” Davis said during an interview minutes after McDuffy’s release.
Colon, who claimed she is blind, told police she knew it was McDuffy because she recognized his voice as he spoke with his alleged accomplice. Despite Colon’s account that two intruders invaded her house, Philadelphia police quickly ceased their search for that purported second alleged assailant after their arrest of McDuffy -– a teenager who had no criminal record. Police found no fingerprints or other forensic evidence linking McDuffy to the alleged crime scene. All they had was Colon’s accusation.
Findings listed in a 2013 Center for Prosecutor Integrity report are on display in the ordeal of McDuffy. Three of the ten “Types of Misconduct” cited in that report are found in the McDuffy case: charging a suspect with more offenses than is warranted; deliberately mishandling, mistreating or destroying evidence and allowing witnesses prosecutors knew or should have known as not truthful to testify.
Police arrested McDuffy hours after Colon’s accusation. They rejected McDuffy’s alibi: pleas from him and his family that he was at the time suffering from a serious stomach virus had kept him in bed or in the bathroom. As a result, McDuffy spent seven months in adult prison before his release on bail. A judge lowered the bail from $500,000 to $100,000 and a community activist then provided the $10,000 cash needed for his release.
What rescued Tomayo McDuffy from becoming yet another statistic in the ballooning wrongful conviction category of mass incarceration was his mother’s persistence in fighting for his release. This unflagging effort included participating in protests against prosecutors, activists who aided her struggle, including organizing protests, two private investigators who volunteered their services to McDuffy, and a few journalists who reported on the glaring contradictions in the case against McDuffy.
“This was a gross waste of taxpayer money. The DA knew this woman was mentally ill but they still put [McDuffy’s] family through this. What happened with [McDuffy] is indicative of what is wrong in the criminal justice system,” says Greg Brinkley, one of two private investigators, along with Edward Lloyd, who provided pro bono services to McDuffy.
This pair personally interviewed the trainer of Colon’s guide dog in New York State who disclosed that the dog was not trained to dial a telephone. The pair also uncovered information from lawyers in New York City contradicting Colon’s claim of being blind.
“We gave our information to the DA’s Office within five months of McDuffy’s arrest,” says Brinkley, who posted McDuffy’s bail. “The DA’s job is to protect the innocent and that didn’t happen here. The first question that [authorities] should have asked is why would this young man try to blow up a house attached to his house that would have hurt his family.”
Two months after McDuffy’s arrest the Philadelphia Daily News published an article detailing Colon’s history of false accusations against her children, her now deceased ex-husband (a NYC policeman) and a boyfriend who ended his relationship with Colon due to her false accusations. That article quoted a police detective supervisor claiming police where unaware of Colon’s history of false accusations, abuse against her children and mental illness.
Philadelphia DA Seth Williams credited that July 2013 Daily News article in a press release he issued around the same time that a prosecutor from his office told a city court judge that charges against McDuffy were withdrawn because the DA’s Office could not meet its “burden” of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Williams’ press release praised the “just result” in the McDuffy case. Williams claimed information supplied by McDuffy’s current attorney plus information developed by his office raised “substantial concerns about the victim’s prior history…” But let’s remember, that was July 2013, just two months after McDuffy was charged and arrested. The DA didn’t get the charges dropped until almost a year and a half later.
Colon had failed to identify McDuffy in a voice lineup a few weeks before the charges were withdrawn. Williams’ press release faulted McDuffy’s original attorney for withdrawing a request for a voice identification in October 2013 making no mention of the ethical and legal duties of his office to confirm Colon’s accusation through such a lineup.
Williams’ press release explained away the length of McDuffy’s ordeal stating, “The overburdened criminal justice system seldom moves as fast as it should…We must be fair to both the complainant and the defendant. Sometimes that takes time.”
Williams’ office states there are no plans to charge Colon with her false accusation against McDuffy.
Private investigator Edward Lloyd warns that Colon will make additional false charges based on her history unless she is charged an/or receives treatment for her mental illness.
Also, investigator/activist Greg Brinkley said the policeman who falsely testified about Colon’s basement door being kicked off its hinges should face charges. But Brinkley knows that circumstance is less likely than a charge against Colon. Prosecutors generally ignore perjured testimony from police officers.
An estimated 43 percent of wrongful convictions arise from misconduct involving prosecutors and other officials states the “Key Facts” section on the website of the Center for Prosecutor Integrity.
“Each year, thousands of Americans are victimized by prosecutors who overcharge, withhold key evidence and engage in a myriad of other forms of professional misconduct,” stated that CPI report entitled “An Epidemic of Prosecutor Misconduct.”
That CPI report stated that victims of prosecutorial misconduct rarely “receive even an apology.” That press release from DA Williams contained no apology to Tomayo McDuffy defending his office’s charges against the teen as “appropriate…”
Linn Washington Jr. is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent Project Censored Award-winning online alternative newspaper. His work, and that of colleagues JOHN GRANT, DAVE LINDORFF, LORI SPENCER and CHARLES M. YOUNG, can be found at www.thiscantbehappening.net