In her Chapel Hill News commentary “When will we stop the criminalization of our youth?” District Judge Marcia Morey admitted that for most of her 16 years as a judge she hadn’t thought much about the damages done to young people arrested and charged as adults when they commit minor offenses. She should also acknowledge the damages done when innocent people are charged with crimes they did not commit.
Five years ago, a Carrboro police officer called my parents and accused me of using forged prescriptions to obtain painkillers at pharmacies in Carrboro and Durham. But I was at college 30 miles away at the time of these crimes.
So what was her “evidence”? First, the perpetrator who tricked the pharmacies used a false name similar to my middle name. Second, another pharmacy had filled a prescription for pain medication in my brother’s name. That’s it. Had she simply bothered to call the doctor who wrote my brother’s prescription, the officer would have learned that it was valid and not forged. I didn’t even match the description of the perpetrator (I saw the surveillance photo). She was about 30 with blond hair and a facial piercing. I was 20 with much longer red hair and have never had such a piercing. None of that mattered; the officer’s mind was made up.
After charging me with two felonies in Orange County, she referred me to the Durham sheriff who had me arrested a second time and charged with another two felonies. Back in Carrboro the officer could imagine that she had solved a case, but I had to pay the price.
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Consider how you’d feel facing prosecution and prison for something you didn’t do. Imagine reading a newspaper report of your felony arrest, knowing that friends and neighbors and classmates were reading the same report. Imagine waking every day and wondering whether your college might try to expel you on the basis of false charges. Imagine living that way for nine months. I don’t have to imagine, because I lived it. Does Judge Morey have any idea what that does to an innocent person?
Many people in my situation would have been forced to accept a plea bargain for a fictitious crime rather than assume the risk of a jury trial, conviction and imprisonment. I was more fortunate. My parents were able to pay the lawyers’ fees that gave me a chance to prove my innocence. My Dad spent hours helping me assemble bank records, credit card receipts (thank you, Paddy D.), cell phone bills and text messages to show that I was nowhere near Carrboro or Durham at the time of the crimes.
As I stood before the judge at my final court appearance, my attorney asked for a continuance since prosecutors were close to dismissing the charges. I was shocked when a judge who had just minutes before excused a young man for failing to pay his fine (a lost checkbook, he said) glared at and admonished me, warning that this would be the only continuance I would receive from her. I guess the judge just didn’t consider the possibility that I was innocent. That judge was Marcia Morey.
I am glad to see that Judge Morey finally understands that damages to a person happen with an arrest. Although the system eventually “worked,” nine months of my life were consumed with stress and anxiety from fighting false charges instead of enjoying my senior year in college. Thousands of dollars in legal fees were spent, never to be returned. While the charges were dropped and my official record was expunged, no official has ever publicly acknowledged my innocence, no newspaper reported my exoneration, and a multitude of websites selling “background information” will forever report my arrest and the false charges against me.
My reputation will always be tainted in the minds of those who assume that an arrest means I “must have done something.” And the person responsible for these damages will never be held accountable.
Still, I consider myself lucky. I have been able to move on with my life. It could have been much worse. I did not face a corrupt prosecutor hiding evidence or 88 professors publicly presuming my guilt as in the Duke Lacrosse case. Unlike Joseph Sledge, I did not have to spend 36 years in prison trying to prove my innocence. What might have happened if my circumstances were different?
For those of you who have taken the time to read my story, I have one request. Remember that our principle of “innocent until proven guilty” is there for an important reason. Because sometimes people really are innocent.
Bonnie Wilson is a former resident of Chapel Hill.
Marcia Morey responds: Ms. Wilson has written an excellent article about the impact about being falsely accused of a crime, While her story is an important one, it is a completely different topic from the criminalization of North Carolina’s 16- and 17-year-olds.
While I have no recollection of Ms. Wilson’s plight and empathize with what she endured, she needs to understand that everyone in the criminal justice system has their distinctive roles and responsibilities. Law enforcement takes out charges, not judges. Prosecutor’s prosecute cases, defense attorneys defend people charged. And yes, all defendants are presumed to be innocent unless and until prosecutors can prove their cases to a judge or jury beyond a reasonable doubt. The judge’s role is to be fair and impartial and move cases along, which in district court means felony charges should be pleaded or transferred to Superior Court within 120 days, not nine months as it appeared to have happened in her situation.
Contrary to Ms. Wilson’s beliefs, I appreciate how devastating it is on a person to be charged with a crime she did not commit but her comments may be misdirected.