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Editorial

Paying for Bum Raps

Friday, November 12, 2004; Page A24

ASINGULARLY terrible example last year of sloppy detective work, erroneous arrests, coercive interrogations and wrongful jailings by Prince George's County police in a 2002 murder case has been quietly papered over with an undisclosed amount of public money to settle lawsuits. The money is going to three Arizona women who were rounded up, jailed and charged with the murder of a Mitchellville woman found strangled in her home. Even before police hauled them in, two other innocent women -- sisters from the District -- had been jailed for several weeks in the same case until DNA tests exonerated one and the other proved that she had been away on business at the time. And the case is still unsolved.

As reported by The Post's Ruben Castaneda, police focused on the Arizona women after the TV show "America's Most Wanted" aired a segment on the murder, including photos from a bank security camera showing the women using an automated teller machine near the victim's home a few hours after the slaying. A caller on a tip line identified them. Bank records showed that someone had used the victim's debit card at about the same time that the three women had used the machine.

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Three Prince George's detectives went to Arizona and questioned the women for several hours; the women said later that the more they insisted they knew nothing about the case, the more aggressive the detectives became. In the meantime, another county detective claimed in a sworn statement used to obtain arrest warrants that under questioning the suspects had admitted using the victim's card. Not so. ATM transaction records for the cards used by the three showed that they were at the machine minutes before the victim's card was used by someone else.

Who figured that out? Not the police. The father of one of the women got a copy of the records, came to Prince George's and asked a prosecutor to review them. She recognized the mistake and arranged for an emergency hearing to dismiss the case. After 22 days in custody two of the three women were released from the county jail, and the third, a 17-year-old, was freed from a youth detention center in Arizona. At the time, police offered no apologies and no help paying for the trip home to Arizona.

As part of the lawsuit settlements reached in July of this year, the women agreed not to disclose how much money they received. But as County Executive Jack B. Johnson said in January 2003, the public ought to know how much taxpayer money is being spent on settlements and jury awards in police misconduct lawsuits. Jim Keary, a Johnson spokesman, said the amounts arising from this murder case will be included in a cumulative total to be released in January. County residents, who have endured an unusual number of such cases over the years, should not have to settle for quiet payoffs of unknown amounts for poor policing. The fair-minded and competent officers on the force deserve to know as well.


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