He took evasive turns and lost the original pursuers in traffic, but two officers in another car took up the chase.
Soon, the driver turned into a residential driveway, bailed out, hopped a fence, and got away.
Officer John Morningstar got a brief look at the fleeing black man wearing a hat, and saw enough to report that he had gold teeth. Minutes later, Morningstar and his partner found a small lump of cocaine in the abandoned car, as well as photos showing a short young black man posing with other people.
Morningstar then “positively identified” the fleeing driver as the man in the photos, a report says.
Thinking the driveway where the fleeing man stopped might not have been random, the officers checked the tag of another nearby car. Could be a link, right?
They got the name of the owner of that other car — Linward Clark, 27, who lives elsewhere in Bradenton — and looked at a computer image of his driver’s license photo. From that, Morningstar decided Clark was the driver who ran. he also “positively identified” Clark as the man in the photos found in the abandoned car, reports say.
Clark was arrested. Later, Morningstar would say under oath that he was “100 percent” certain it was Clark who fled.
Whew. I’ve seen the photos found in that car. I’d say Clark looks, um, kind of similar. He’s black and roughly the right age, anyway. And, Clark was previously convicted of cocaine possession.
But the man in the photos looks shorter. And Morningstar said the fleeing man had gold teeth. Clark doesn’t, it turned out. And a close look at the photos shows what looks like a tattoo on the man’s hand. Clark has no tattoos.
Wrong guy? seems pretty likely. it is hard to imagine going to trial without any other evidence linking Clark to that abandoned car and the cocaine.
But wait. Police dusted the steering wheel and other parts of the abandoned car and objects inside for fingerprints. And, guess what? none of the prints were Clark’s. Police found nothing whatsoever to link him to the car. Zilch.
Charges dropped at last?
Nope. Assistant State Attorney Chris Nigro and his supervisor, felony Division Chief Lon Arend, told me Thursday that prosecutors went forward despite defense requests to drop the case. Nigro proceeded with the cocaine possession and fleeing to elude charges, both felonies. Nigro’s reason: Morningstar’s insistence he was certain, from his brief view of a fleeing black man in a hat, that his identification was correct. Gold teeth or no gold teeth.
After the police testified at the trial in January, defense attorney Peter Lombardo presented two witnesses, including Clark’s mother, who said Clark has never had gold teeth and that he was not the man in the photos.
Lombardo’s presentation was interrupted when Judge Barbara Fleischer abruptly called all the lawyers to the bench.
“Done. finished,” the judge said.
The transcript shows what I would call a tongue-lashing.
Fleischer, a retired judge from Hillsborough County who fills in on some felony trials in Manatee, said that in 24 years on the bench, she has rarely dismissed a case mid-trial. but she said she could not let this one go to the jury.
Looking at the defendant and at the photos Morningstar had used to “positively” identify the fleeing man, the judge scoffed.
“That’s not him. look at those pictures,” Fleischer told prosecutors.
She spoke more harshly about the police officers. “The fact is, they’re incredible, those officers, especially Morningstar, quite frankly,” Fleischer said.
She also went after officer Anthony Ramdath, for first being unable to identify the fleeing man, according to his own report, only to become “90 percent sure” it was Clark when testifying at trial.
“Oath, what the heck does that mean to people?” the judge lamented.
Bradenton Police Chief Mike Radzilowski tells me he believes his officers said what they believed to be true. Arend, the felony division chief, likewise shrugged off the admonishment. he said there’s nothing unusual about basing a case on that sort of police testimony. His prosecutors bring many such cases, and often win, he said.
That’s my worry. Guesses passed off as police certainty can and do send people to prison, largely because some jurors think it their duty to believe police officers.
Total certainty? From that brief glimpse, and without the gold teeth? really? Well, if a cop says so, it is rude to be skeptical.
Good thing some judges don’t see it that way. Next time the chase could end in your driveway.
Tom Lyons can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (941) 361-4964.