THE PRESUMPTION OF INNOCENCE is a foundation stone of our legal system. But as Atlanta security guard Richard Jewell discovered following the Centennial Olympic Park bombing this summer, once authorities and the media zero in on a target, that presumption offers little protection outside the courtroom for a suspect who is publicly fingered.
Convicted of nothing, and never even formally accused, Jewell became a symbol of the hapless soul caught up suddenly in a maddening web of leaked information, suspicion and misguided police work.
Jewell is far from the only onetime criminal suspect victimized by a rush to judgment in advance of a trial; he might, in fact, be considered one of the lucky ones, in the sense that his ordeal lasted weeks rather than years and that he was publicly and persuasively exonerated. As the following cases suggest, being acquitted in court may never heal the wounds inflicted by unwarranted charges, and even when suspects are not legally charged with wrongdoing, their reputations may never be fully restored.
Acquitted of child sex abuse, a pastor still pays a price
For months police around Wenatchee, Wash., had been apprehending suspects—46 in all—in what seemed a chilling epidemic of child sex abuse. On March 28, 1995, they swarmed into the modest Pentecostal Church of God House of Prayer in East Wenatchee to nab pastor Robert Roberson, 51. The charges were repulsive and grotesque: The preacher and his wife, Connie, 46, stood accused of molesting seven young children, including their daughter Rebekah, now 6.
In court the allegations grew even more lurid, with child witnesses describing church orgies and "youth nights" when Roberson would supposedly teach kids biblical verses and then strip them to be passed among adult sex partners.
Incredible? The jury thought so, rendering a quick verdict last December: not guilty. Then, last June, the prosecution's star witness, a 13-year-old girl, recanted, saying an investigator—coincidentally her foster father—had forced her to lie.
But the damage had been done. Beaten by fellow inmates in jail while he awaited trial, Roberson suffered broken teeth and a hearing loss in both ears. Rebekah, taken from her parents until they were cleared, is still haunted by the nine months she lived in a state foster home and then with relatives. "She's afraid she'll wake up in the morning and we'll be gone," says Roberson, whose Sunday crowd dropped from 45 to 6 after his acquittal (though numbers are picking up). "Our life as we knew it is gone."
Roberson has suits pending against several government entities and two child therapists who worked for the prosecution. Meanwhile he devotes most of his energy to freeing some of the 24 people swept up in the sex probe who remain in prison for what he sees as improper convictions. Says Kathryn Lyon, a Tacoma lawyer whose personal interest in the case led her to do a six-month pro bono investigation: "Anybody who doesn't think this can happen to them is wrong."
A lawyer's good name is restored—75 years later
It was May 1921, and 2,000 angry whites were converging on a Tulsa jail where a 19-year-old black shoeshine man was being held for allegedly assaulting a 17-year-old, white female elevator operator. Historians say the mob had marched into the prosperous black neighborhood of Greenwood with a lynching in mind when J.B. Stradford, a local lawyer, hotel owner and son of a freed slave, cut through a growing crowd of wary blacks, believing he could prevent certain bloodshed. "He thought he could speak to the people and calm them down," says circuit judge Cornelius E. Toole, Stradford's great-grandson from Chicago.
As the 60-year-old Stradford stood by helplessly, a shot rang out and the white mob surged forward, weapons blazing as they looted stores and set fire to homes. By morning, a 35-square-block area had been burned to the ground, more than 35 people were dead and 5,000 left homeless. His own hotel in ruins, Stradford was arrested for inciting the riot he'd hoped to prevent. Fearing another lynching party, his son C. Francis Stradford, a lawyer, paid his bail, and the two disappeared. Though he would build another life, practicing law and opening successful businesses in Chicago, Stradford Sr. would never see his hometown again.
Stradford died a fugitive in 1935, but his family never forgot his loss and humiliation, attempting several times to clear his name. Finally, last summer, Tulsa county district attorney William LaFortune reexamined the 75-year-old case and found that Stradford was "the victim of the emotional climate of the day." Just last month all charges were dropped, and Gov. Frank Keating followed suit, publicly announcing Stradford's exoneration. "We're glad," says Emma Monroe, 85, a Stradford granddaughter, "but 75 years to free someone who didn't do anything in the first place is too much time."
A junkman named, but never charged, in two bombings
As he pulled up to his store in Enterprise, Ala., on the morning of Jan. 22, 1990, Robert Wayne O'Ferrell was puzzled to see two men waiting for him in a dark sedan. When they identified themselves as FBI agents, he invited them into his shop, the Surplus Salvage Thrifty Warehouse, where he sold everything from old clothes to ancient office equipment.
The agents quizzed O'Ferrell about a pipe bomb that had killed federal judge Robert Vance a month before in Birmingham. Then, to his amazement, they grew more hostile, treating him as if he were a suspect. When he told his wife, Mary Ann, she could barely contain her disbelief. "She got tickled and went to laughing," says O'Ferrell, now 53.
The investigators, though, were utterly serious. Over the next four days, scores of agents swarmed around his home and store in search of clues. They even dug up his septic tanks. At his own request, O'Ferrell took several lie-detector tests, which the FBI claims showed deception.
O'Ferrell says the only thing linking him to the death of Vance and a Georgia civil rights lawyer who had also been killed by a mail bomb was a letter he sent to the federal court in Montgomery regarding a lawsuit he had filed against a former employer. According to agents, the typescript on the letter exactly matched address labels on two recovered bombs.
Authorities continued over the next several weeks to hold press conferences and to refer to O'Ferrell as a suspect. Yet within a week of Vance's murder, the feds were focusing on another suspect, Walter Leroy Moody Jr., from Rex, Ga., who had a previous conviction for possessing a pipe bomb. (Just last month, Moody was convicted on state murder charges, and the jury recommended the death penalty.) Moreover, experts hired by O'Ferrell to examine the typescript concluded there was no match at all.
Why investigators focused on O'Ferrell when they had another suspect is a mystery that may or may not be cleared up. Meanwhile, O'Ferrell has filed a $150 million lawsuit against the FBI and demanded a public apology. Divorced and remarried, O'Ferrell has also been plagued by money problems that he blames in part on the investigation. "There's an arrogance there, a flippant disregard for humanity," his attorney William Gill says of the FBI. "They say they were doing their job, but what they were doing was destroying a man's life."
Though innocent, he came from the wrong place
Abraham Ahmad was nowhere near the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995, but still he counts himself a victim of the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168. A computer technician, Ahmad was detained while changing planes in Chicago, mainly because he was of Middle Eastern extraction and had left Oklahoma City en route to Jordan less than two hours after the bombing. Released, he was arrested by British authorities soon after he arrived in London, where he was handcuffed, strip-searched, then flown to Washington for interrogation. "This is the end of the world," he recalls thinking. "I'm going to jail forever."
Within two days authorities freed Ahmad and arrested Timothy McVeigh, who is now charged with the bombing. But Ahmad found when he returned home that his wife, Martina, and their two daughters, now 7 and 4 years old, had been forced into hiding to escape people who taunted them with threats. One nightmare still haunts Ahmad, who emigrated from Jordan in 1982 and is now a U.S. citizen. "I am in a court," he says, "and a judge is looking at me saying, 'You killed those people, and we're going to hang you.' "
Working with the American Civil Liberties Union, Ahmad filed a $1.9 million damage claim against the government. Though some in the community have been sympathetic, and the government has included him in a job-training program for bombing victims, Ahmad and his family continue to be dogged by publicity and notoriety. Disgusted and uneasy, his wife, who was born and raised in Mexico, moved with their daughters to Jordan in September. She has no plans to return. "I just don't know what will happen," says Ahmad. "They are over there, and I'm here. And this is not a life."
A Texas teenager is jailed for a murder he didn't commit
At around 2:30 a.m. last Dec. 15, police armed with a battering ram and laser-sighted automatic weapons stormed into the McMillen family home in Mansfield, Texas, and led 17-year-old Bryan McMillen away in nothing but handcuffs and his underwear, with an overcoat draped over his shoulders. When he protested, recalls Bryan, "they said, 'We're not here for your convenience.' "
For the next 22 days, McMiilen was held in jail while authorities tried to build a case against him for the murder of Adrianne Jones, 16, who had been found bludgeoned and shot to death in a rural part of the county. Police had little to go on. McMillen's name had turned up in the girl's address book—they were casual acquaintances who had met through their jobs—and Jones's boyfriend remembered her telling him that she had received a call on the night she was last seen from someone possibly named "Brian." McMillen answered police questions freely but refused to take a polygraph test; his doctor feared that the medication he takes for depression and anxiety attacks might skew the results.
To pressure McMillen, police at one point made him hold a gruesome picture of Adrianne's corpse to his chest. He says he wasn't given his medication or any food for a day and a half, and was forced to sleep on the cement floor of a cell for six days. Bryan also claims police initially refused to let him telephone either his parents or a lawyer. (Police have refused to comment.)
Finally, after he consented to a lie-detector test and passed it, he was released. But until two other teenagers, David Graham and Diane Zamora, confessed to the killing three months ago (PEOPLE, Oct. 21), McMillen continued to be subjected to taunts of "Murderer!" on the streets of Mansfield. With his history of anxiety attacks, which had forced him to leave high school at 16 (although he earned his GED soon after), McMillen believes he was arrested because he was viewed as a loser. "I was thought of basically as a psycho high school dropout," he says. He now plans to leave Mansfield, where his family has lived for generations. "This," he says, "is not home anymore."
MICHAEL HAEDERLE in Wenatchee, BARBARA SANDLER in Chicago, KATE KLISE in Missouri, KATHY KEMP in Enterprise and KAREN ROEBUCK in Oklahoma and Mansfield
On Newsstands Now
- Amy Robach: 'I'm Lucky to Be Alive'
- Paul Walker: Inside His Tragic Death
- Julia Roberts: Choosing Family Over Hollywood
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine