Woman Wrongly Convicted Files Suit

By Anthony Colarossi | Orlando Sentinel
Posted December 19, 2011

Malenne Joseph, the woman wrongly convicted and jailed last year for a property crime she had nothing to do with, filed a lawsuit Monday, naming the City of Orlando, the police officer who investigated the case and Public Defender Robert Wesley's office.

The young Haitian-born mother who was wrongfully prosecuted, found guilty and jailed last year for an Orlando property crime she had nothing to do with, has filed a lawsuit, naming the City of Orlando, the police officer who investigated her case and Public Defender Robert Wesley's office.

The 11-count complaint filed by attorneys representing Malenne Joseph alleges false arrest and false imprisonment; intentional infliction of emotional distress; malicious prosecution; civil rights violations; and negligence.

The civil action shows how a complete breakdown in the judicial system could end up costing some of the government entities involved in Joseph's botched arrests, prosecution, conviction and three-month incarceration in the Orange County Jail.

The lawsuit, filed by Jason Recksiedler with Orlando Law Firm NeJame Law, seeks more than $15,000 in damages, the minimum filing amount for this kind of claim.

The Joseph case illustrated how less than thorough police work, mistaken witness identifications and the judicial system itself failed to ensure justice until long after a jury found the woman guilty and Judge Walter Komanski tossed her in jail for three months while she awaited sentencing.

The woman left Florida with her children and long-time partner after her release. She could not be reached for comment Monday.

Joseph was wrongfully charged with felony criminal mischief linked to a 2007 property crime at the home of a Conway-area woman. The home was severely damaged, with paint splattered over most rooms.

The suspect was a sub-contractor hired to paint the home. When that individual grew frustrated about not getting paid in full, she splattered paint all over the home, causing about $10,000 in damage.

That person admitted her acts to Orlando police Officer Jose M. Varela during a phone conversation, but the woman, who was referred to as Marlene, never met with the officer face to face.

Instead, Varela used a Florida driver's-license database to somehow track down Malenne Joseph. He said he used a vehicle license plate number he was given to develop probable cause against Joseph, but he never included that plate number in his police report or an affidavit.

The victim and her sister later identified Joseph through a copy of her photo. The contractor for the paint job, Pete Spaziano, himself a felon with legal problems, also identified Joseph as the woman he hired

But the phone number Spaziano had for the sub-contractor was linked to another woman, who is also black and shared some common features with Joseph. Her first name is "Merline." Law enforcement did not follow up with that woman.

In the lawsuit, Joseph's civil attorneys identify the real "Merline." The complaint also states that Malenne Joseph was working at a Burger King as a cashier at the time the Conway home was vandalized in early December 2007.

Spaziano later recanted his trial testimony, saying Malenne Joseph was too short to be the woman he hired to do the job.

Assistant public defenders in Wesley's office represented Joseph during the criminal case, but it was a pair of private attorneys - Paula Coffman and Nicole Benjamin - who learned about her situation later and realized Joseph was a victim of misidentification.

Their work filing an extensive motion asking for a new trial, discussing the case with the Orlando Sentinel and convincing Orange-Osceola State Attorney Lawson Lamar's office to re-examine the prosecution led to Joseph being released from jail. She was later cleared of the charge altogether.

Joseph, the lawsuit says, suffered physical inconvenience, physical discomfort and pain, physical suffering, medical expenses, mental suffering, embarrassment, humiliation, disgrace and injury to her feelings "the physical and emotional aspects of which are continuing to this day and are likely to continue into the future."

Another count of intentional infliction of emotional distress claims Varela "breached" his duty when he swore to his affidavit for arrest "without the sufficient objective probable cause."

In a separate malicious prosecution count against Varela, the claim states the officer "was without probable cause for the arrests and acted in malice." His actions caused her "prosecution and confinement," the lawsuit says.

City of Orlando spokeswoman Cassandra Lafser said in a statement, writing the city "does not comment on pending or anticipated litigation."

Wesley, meanwhile, noted that the filing of the lawsuit "helps me identify a big loophole in Florida law." While the prosecutor's office and the judge involved in this case cannot be sued thanks to immunity, the original office that defended Joseph before and during her trial is getting sued, he said.

"If we fail to extricate a person [from a guilty finding], we have the liability," Wesley said. "It's intensely, personally frustrating."

Wesley agreed "there was a great mistake made in this case to the detriment of this lady," but seeking to hold his office liable comes at a particularly bad time, he said, with staff having to be cut due to budgetary problems.

"We'll have to hire a lawyer," he said.

The Joseph complaint notes that her mistreatment by the judicial system ended after the State Attorney's office filed a motion to set aside her guilty verdict in late September 2010. The court later entered an order granting the motion.

Joseph's 21-page complaint demands a jury trial, saying the city and the public defender's office were notified before the filing but the "claims were not resolved."

Source: Orlando Sentinel