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‘A Convenient Scapegoat’

Cherie Townsend is suing the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department after she says they falsely imprisoned her for murder and destroyed her reputation.

Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell
Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnellDavid McNew/Getty Images

When Cherie Townsend was admitted into L.A. County Jail last year, she was so distraught, she couldn’t eat. According to her lawyer, the day Townsend was to get arraigned, she collapsed.  

“I think due to exhaustion and lack of eating, her body just gave out,” Nazareth Haysbert, Townsend’s lawyer, told The Appeal.

Townsend was accused of murdering a 66-year-old retired nurse in an affluent Los Angeles suburb; she says in a civil rights lawsuit that she was falsely accused and arrested for the crime.

Susan Leeds was found dead in the parking lot of the Rolling Hills Estates mall on May 3, 2018. She had been stabbed multiple times. Townsend, who said she had dropped her phone in the same parking lot while leaving the shopping mall, was later arrested at gunpoint, the lawsuit says, based on evidence that her car was parked near the scene of the murder.

Two days after Townsend was arrested, then Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, two captains, and the mayor of Rolling Hills Estates, held a press conference and announced Cherie Townsend as the sole suspect in Leeds’s murder. The press conference was published on the sheriff’s department’s Facebook page and covered by the Associated Press (which also named Townsend), then syndicated to news outlets across the country.                                                                                                                            

After her arrest, Townsend said, she was interrogated for three hours before being placed in a recorded cell. During the interrogation, according to Haysbert, law enforcement officers asked her what she was doing in the area, and told her she didn’t belong and she didn’t have enough money to be shopping in that neighborhood. Rolling Hills Estates is an affluent, predominantly white city, and Townsend is Black. The median household income was $131,000 in 2017.

Townsend spent six nights in jail before being released with no charges; the district attorney’s office said there wasn’t enough evidence to charge her with a crime and asked the sheriff’s department to conduct further investigation.

The then sheriff of Los Angeles went in front of the world essentially…and publicly branded my client as a murderer.

Nazareth Haysbert Cherie Townsend’s attorney

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson from the sheriff’s department said, “The Los Angeles County Sheriff Department’s Homicide Bureau continues to investigate the murder of Susan Leeds which occurred on May 3, 2018, in the city of Rolling Hills Estates. This has proven to be a very complex, yet active investigation.” The sheriff’s office did not respond to questions on whether Townsend was still a suspect or if they stand by the May arrest.

Nearly eight months later, the sheriff’s department’s public announcement and arrest continue to have a profound effect on her life, her attorney said. On Nov. 29, Townsend filed a lawsuit against McDonnell, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Los Angeles County, and the city of Rolling Hills Estates, accusing them of violating her rights under the Fourth and 14th Amendments. Since the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department announced Townsend as a suspect of the murder, she has not been able to return to work or live a regular life, the complaint alleges.

“The then sheriff of Los Angeles went in front of the world essentially, speaking to over 10 million individuals who live in Los Angeles County and publicly branded my client as a murderer,” Haysbert told The Appeal.

The sheriff’s department has not made any other arrests in Leeds’s murder and Townsend has not been officially cleared as a suspect, despite not being charged with a crime. Some of her personal property—including her car, cell phone, and prescription medications—were seized when she was arrested and are still in the department’s possession.

The lawsuit shines a light on how public broadcasting of mugshots, “suspects” and “persons of interest,” a practice that law enforcement departments across the country partake in, has lasting consequences—even if that person is never charged with a crime. Many local media outlets also display a constantly updated mugshot gallery. One Mississippi newspaper recently decided to end the practice, saying, “The mugshot stayed a part of people’s lives forever, whether they were convicted or not. Plenty of people have contacted us over the years to say they were cleared of the crime but that mugshot has prevented them from getting jobs. It turns up in background searches.”

Townsend says the public announcement and arrest had lasting ripple effects.

If you happen to be in an affluent neighborhood, then you will be a target.

Hamid Khan founder of the Stop LAPD Spying coalition

After the sheriff’s department announced her as a suspect, some of Townsend’s own family members wouldn’t even speak to her. Over the past eight months, her mental and physical health have suffered as well. Townsend was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder for the first time as a result of the incident, according to the complaint.

In a press conference after Townsend’s release, McDonnell defended his decision to publicly name her. “I thought it was what we needed to do to be able to let the community know where we were on the case,” he said in May, when asked if he thought he had made a mistake. “There was a lot of interest in that case, certainly, and a lot of anxiety, and to the degree that we were able to provide some closure, some comfort to that community, we wanted to do that.”

Though his tenure lasted just four years, McDonnell presided over a number of scandals in the sheriff’s department. Los Angeles County recently agreed to pay nearly $4 million to women who said they were sexually assaulted by a sheriff’s deputy while they were in jail over a period in 2017. A different employee of the sheriff’s office was arrested in November for allegedly raping a 14-year-old girl in a 2017 case he was investigating. McDonnell was also dogged by protests over the high number of people dying in jail under his watch.

Amid the mounting complaints against his department, McDonnell lost his seat in a surprise upset by Alex Villanueva, who billed himself as a reformer with a history of speaking out against corruption. Villanueva himself sued the department alleging racial discrimination against Latinxs in 2005, and he’s already begun cleaning house.

But Villanueva has not yet addressed Townsend’s allegations. A hearing in her lawsuit is scheduled for Feb. 1.

Hamid Khan, a founder of Stop LAPD Spying coalition, says Townsend’s arrest indicates a familiar, much longer pattern of racist policing and housing policies.

“This is nothing new that we’re looking at. It’s a continuation of the racist history of police departments in Southern California,” Khan told The Appeal. “It more or less shows how redlining and segregation and segregated geography is very real. It’s a reality and if you happen to be in an affluent neighborhood, then you will be a target.”  

Haysbert argued that the singling out of Townsend in a wealthy, predominantly white area was based on racial profiling. “Did they do this to the white man? No,” he said.

“They chose someone who was out of place, according to them, looked different from everybody else, didn’t have money, didn’t belong there, wandered from the area, and she was a convenient scapegoat.”