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Exonerated Florida Prisoner Receives $2.2 Million; Second Lawsuit Still Pending

Exonerated Florida Prisoner Receives $2.2 Million; Second Lawsuit Still Pending

The City of Miami has agreed to pay $2.2 million to a mentally ill man who served 22 years in prison for a rape and multiple murders he did not commit. DNA evidence cleared him in 2001.

Jerry Frank Townsend, 57, was arrested in Miami in 1979 for rape after police found him near the location where another woman had been murdered. Townsend, who has an IQ of 58 (the mental capacity of an 8-year-old), was subjected to five days of questioning by detectives for Miami and Broward County without an attorney present.

After that continual badgering, Townsend confessed to the rape, two murders in Miami and four murders in Broward County. He even admitted to crimes in California. Despite the fact that his confessions were filled with inconsistencies, Townsend received seven life sentences after pleading guilty to all the charges.

DNA testing was conducted in 2000 after Fort Lauderdale police detective John Curico became skeptical about Townsend’s convictions. According to court records, DNA tests in two of the murders that Townsend was convicted of committing indicated the real killer was Eddie Lee Mosley, who was known as “The Rape Man.” Mosley has been linked by police to more than a dozen rapes and murders; he was charged in two of the cases, and has been committed indefinitely to a mental health facility.

The DNA evidence forced a full review of Townsend’s convictions. Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle initially resisted vacating the convictions, but strong criticism from Miami police convinced her to do so. Miami homicide detectives reexamined their own files after the Broward County convictions were vacated. “They were very critical of our 1979 investigation,” stated Miami Assistant Attorney Warren Bittner. “And in particular of the confessions that were taken.”

Shortly after Townsend was released from prison on June 15, 2001, several lawsuits were filed on his behalf. Those complaints accused the detectives of coercing confessions from Townsend, doctoring interview tapes, and withholding evidence that would have acquitted him. When deciding to settle the suit, the Miami City Commission listened to audio tapes of Townsend’s confessions.

Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones said the repeated starting and stopping of the tape was audible, which led to questions about what was happening off the tape. “We know that there was more to that confession than what was being stated,” Spence-Jones said.
Those questions and concerns contributed to the city’s $2.2 million settlement in June 2008. See: Townsend v. City of Miami, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Fla.), Case No. 1:03-cv-21072-AJ.

Townsend’s lawsuit against Broward County remains. That suit cites a “pattern and/or practice of misconduct” that dates back to the 1970s. Despite Townsend’s prior exoneration, and having already spent $800,000 to defend against the litigation, Broward County has vowed to fight on. “It doesn’t immediately change anything here,” remarked sheriff’s spokesman Jim Leljedal.

The Broward County suit is still pending, and Townsend’s lawyer looks forward to going to trial. “Generally, the jurors have been awarding about a million per year,” said attorney Barbara Heyer. PLN will report the outcome of the lawsuit against the county, which is Townsend v. Jenne, 17th Judicial Circuit Court (Broward County, FL), Case No. 02-18346.

Sources: Miami Herald, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Innocence Project

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Related legal cases

Townsend v. Jenne

Townsend v. City of Miami