American Justice on Trial: Gratuitous Police Violence, False Testimony by Police, and a Rush to Bad Judgment
Hours after police in a Philadelphia suburb proudly paraded Kenneth Woods, 21, in front of the news media as the man responsible for killing a college student during a hi-speed crash while allegedly fleeing police in a stolen SUV, the cops backpedalled, admitting they arrested the wrong man.
Shortly after Woods’ arraignment on vehicular homicide and third-degree murder charges, the real culprit – Donny Sayers – telephoned police, reportedly confessing to his crimes and clearing Woods of any involvement.
That confession imploded a case against Woods that police had previous proclaimed was rock-solid, resting, they claimed, on fingerprint evidence, a cell phone photo and supposedly positive identification by the policeman who had pursued the SUV immediately before the fatal crash. (The driver of the stolen vehicle had fled on foot after the collusion and escaped pursuing police.)
Yet, when law enforcement authorities in Delaware County staged a press conference hours after Sayers’ surprise confession, they refused to fully accept responsibility for erring in so quickly fingering Woods, who was roughly body-slammed during his arrest despite his offering no resistance.
Delco DA G. Michael Green and Haverford Township Police Chief Carmen D. Pettine, during their press conference remarks, both defended Woods’ arrest as “absolutely correct” – citing that supposedly rock-solid “evidence,” which they simultaneously acknowledged had been incorrect.
No question, authorities were absolutely right to question Woods, even elevating him to the status of ‘a person of interest. But authorities were absolutely wrong in their rush to judgment, given the shaky nature of the evidence they declared certified Woods’ guilt.
It turns out that the so-called “fingerprint evidence” police and prosecutors had touted was not on the steering wheel but was Woods’ print found on the outside of that SUV’s rear passenger side window. Woods readily admitted having been with the SUV driver hours before the crash, telling police he only knew the driver by his first name: Donny. (Woods’ fingerprint had been in the law enforcement system because of a prior conviction for smoking in a non-smoking area.)
While some say ‘the system’ worked, clearing Woods of a crime he didn’t commit, others contend the Woods incident is yet another example of an unspoken scandal in the criminal justice system…the scandal of false arrests.
False arrests – some from honest mistakes by authorities but far too many others resulting from malicious misconduct – produce hundreds if not thousands of wrongful convictions annually in America, including persons who end up on death row.
The injustice of false arrests disproportionately impacts persons of color like Woods, an African-American…charged with the killing of a white.