|Without a remedy
Victims of the criminal-justice system have nowhere to turn.
Patricia L. Davis of Madison was a single mom working two jobs, as a nurse's aide at St. Marys Care Center and as a taxi-cab driver for Madison Metro. In April 1997, a same-shift coworker named Deanise Hollingsworth snatched Davis' drivers license to cash a forged check. Hollingsworth around this time committed a spate of similar crimes, for which she is now serving a six year prison term. But police and prosecutors did not go after Hollingsworth for the forgery involving Davis; instead, they went after Davis.
When Davis, who has no criminal record, said she didn't know anything about the check, police asked her for a handwriting sample, which she provided. Madison police Det. Rick Miller, who has received some training in handwriting analysis, concluded that Davis forged the check.
Amazingly, Miller was never shown samples of Hollingsworth's handwriting; apparently she wasn't even a suspect. Yet on the basis of his analysis, Davis was this spring charged with a felony, arrested and thrown in jail overnight. The state of Wisconsin yanked her nurse's aide license; the city pulled her taxi-driver's permit; Davis had to find two new jobs to support herself. Plus she incurred thousands of dollars in legal bills to avoid being convicted of a crime in which she was actually the victim.
Throughout the year, in various pleadings and motion hearings, Davis' attorney Dan Stein argued that Hollingsworth was the most likely culprit. Asst. District Attorney Ann Sayles, who also prosecuted Hollingsworth, objected to this on grounds of relevance. Two weeks ago, just before Davis was set to go on trial, handwriting samples obtained by Stein and analyzed by the State Crime Lab confirmed that the check was forged by Hollingsworth. The charges against Davis were dismissed.
Afterwards, I asked Sayles whether the DA's office owed Davis an apology. She said it was an interesting question. Later that day, when I ran into her in court, Sayles volunteered, "The answer to the question, 'Is an apology owed to Ms. Davis?' is yes."
Davis is still waiting to hear it. "Nobody has told me anything," she says. "Nobody has apologized. They were so willing to prosecute me, but now that they've found out I'm not guilty, they're like, 'Oh well, we're through with her.'"
Worse, Davis is learning there's not much she can do about it. Even though she suffered actual monetary losses as well as extreme emotional pain, for no good reason, she's left without recourse.
"Vindicated criminal targets or defendents generally are without a remedy in our system," reported the Wisconsin Lawyer in its September 1998 issue. "The immunity doctrines and the very high bar for any civil remedy historically have made recovery for even the most abusive prosecution virtually impossible."
Sayles, to her credit, has taken steps to help clear Davis' name. Her boss, District Attorney Diane Nicks, defends her office's handling of the case while noting it has, as a matter of law, "no civil or financial obligation" to Davis.
Somehow or other, people in this country got sold on the idea that the more power we give to police and prosecutors, the safer we'll be. Instead, we've allowed police and prosecutors to become so powerful they potentially pose a threat to the safety and security of people like Patty Davis.
Think of it: Hollingsworth, a dangerous felon, used Davis' name to forge a check, but it was police and prosecutors who turned Davis' life upside down.
What happened to Davis may be extreme, but it has elements in
common with other cases that have attracted Isthmus' attention in 1998:
Nicks insists prosecutors are mindful of their capacity for error. "I think everybody in this office worries about the decisions we make, the possiblility we can make a mistake," she says. "Nobody wields the power cavalierly and without concern."
Yet Nicks can't think of any cases in which prosecutorial error has clearly occurred. Even in the Davis' case, she says, police had not just a forged check but a detective's analysis of the handwriting: "I don't know if there was an error in charging."
Tell that to Patty Davis.
Bill Lueders (firstname.lastname@example.org) is news editor of Isthmus.
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