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Two wrongful-arrest cases show suspicion is not enough in our system of justice

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Two wrongful-arrest cases show suspicion is not enough in our system of justice

Aug 06, 2022 | 10:00 am ET
By Randy Evans
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Two wrongful-arrest cases show suspicion is not enough in our system of justice
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Two Iowans spent weeks in jail after wrongful arrests in separate cases. (Photo by Caspar Benson/Getty Images)

It is difficult for many of us to muster empathy for people accused of crimes who have complaints about the way police treated them.

This lack of empathy probably occurs because ordinary folks do not think they will be in situations like people accused of crimes.

If that includes you, allow me to introduce you to Anthony Watson, 43, of Coralville, and Jennifer Pritchard, also 43, of Fort Dodge.

Their experiences should be a wake-up call. We should ask government leaders, especially in Johnson and Hamilton counties, a bunch of “why” and “how” questions — questions about the events and decisions that led these two people to be jailed and their lives turned topsy-turvy.

This is not some arcane exercise. The taxpayers are paying Watson and Pritchard a combined $815,000 to compensate them for the harm the justice system caused.

This is not intended as criticism of law officers as a whole. We owe them our gratitude. But the actions of a few officers and prosecutors in these cases undermine public trust, respect and confidence in our justice system — just as surely as respect for Texas police was eroded by the video of cops loitering in the school corridor in Uvalde, Texas, while 21 students and teachers were being killed down the hall.

The troubling events involving Watson and Pritchard were brought to light recently by dogged reporting by Trish Mehaffey of the Cedar Rapids Gazette and Kelby Wingert of the Fort Dodge Messenger. Their articles, and Iowa court records, help us understand why the treatment of Watson and Pritchard is a perversion of Iowa’s system of justice.

Under the American system of justice, we don’t lock people up on a hunch and then go looking for proof.

Watson stopped for gas at a Casey’s in Iowa City in December 2017. Within minutes, police officer Travis Graves pulled in, having been dispatched to check a report of a reckless driver in the area.

Watson never argued with the officer. He never tried to flee. Whatever Graves asked him to do, Watson complied. But Graves was convinced Watson was impaired by alcohol, marijuana or another controlled drug.

Graves asked him to perform a series of field sobriety tests, then to give two breathalyzer samples. Each time, the tests showed there was no evidence of impairment.

Graves asked Coralville police officer Jeff Reinhard to come to the Iowa City station and perform a visual evaluation of Watson for signs of drug use. Reinhard had been trained to perform these subjective evaluations. Reinhard concluded Watson was under the influence of marijuana.

Graves then asked Watson to give a urine specimen. That test showed no evidence to support Reinhard’s conclusion. Nevertheless, Graves charged Watson with drunken driving and locked him up in the Johnson County Jail. The charging documents do not mention Watson had passed the balance, breath and urine tests.

At the time, Watson was on parole on an unrelated charge. The Iowa City officer notified the parole officer of the arrest, knowing that would ensure Watson would remain in jail until the OWI case was adjudicated.

A month after his arrest, not the day after the arrest, police sent Watson’s urine specimen to an out-of-state laboratory to conduct more sophisticated tests for the presence of controlled drugs. Those tests also showed no evidence of drugs, including cannabis.

But it would be five more weeks before Watson was released from jail. Another month would pass before prosecutors dropped the OWI charge. They noted in court documents, “anticipated problems of proof fatal to the prosecution; breath and toxicology tests came back negative for alcohol and/or controlled substances.”

By the time the case was dismissed, Watson had been punished aplenty: He spent nearly three months in jail. He lost his job and his apartment during that time.

Jennifer Pritchard’s experience is similar. She spent 23 days in the Hamilton County Jail in 2019 after being charged with aiding and abetting in attempted murder.

Pritchard was accused of driving a car belonging to a friend, Jacob Adams, when the two supposedly followed Brianna Purcell as she drove near Stratford. Purcell accused Adams of firing a gun at her from the moving car and then at her camper while she was inside.

Purcell and Adams had what Deputy Sheriff David Turpen called a “volatile past.” There also was a fundamental problem with Purcell’s allegations: Her story changed wildly during interviews with Hamilton County sheriff’s officers.

In Deputy Turpen’s reports, Purcell never mentioned being followed or any gunshots being fired at her. She told him several times she was in the camper and never saw a car or shooter.

Her story changed when she was questioned by Sheriff Doug Timmons. She then said the first shots came while she being followed by a car driven by Pritchard, with Adams shooting at her from the passenger seat.

Based on that interview, attempted-murder charges were filed against Pritchard and Adams. They were unable to post $500,000 cash-only bond, so they were jailed.

When Pritchard was questioned the day after her arrest, she said she was at work in Fort Dodge, 32 miles away, at the time officials said the shooting occurred. A co-worker verified Pritchard’s alibi, as did security video.

In asking for the charges to be dismissed, the prosecutor said it was “pursuant to further review and in the interest of justice.”

If the events described in court documents in the two cases were not enough to stoke public outrage, the wrongful-arrest lawsuits by Watson and Pritchard fueled public reaction. The Iowa City and Coralville city councils together agreed to pay Watson $390,000. Hamilton County agreed to pay Pritchard $425,000.

No one suggests officers should not have thoroughly investigated the allegations against Watson and Pritchard. But two people with jobs were locked up for weeks, depriving them of their freedom — while officers tried to assemble evidence to prove the suspicions and allegations.

That verification should occur before people are jailed. Under the American system of justice, we don’t lock people up on a hunch and then go looking for proof.