A woman who was falsely accused of the murder of a retired nurse won a legal ruling critics have called “unusual” in federal court. A stay was lifted from Cherie Townsend’s wrongful arrest lawsuit against LA County, allowing her to take legal action against Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department after they accused her of the murder of retired nurse Susan Leeds.
According to NBC Los Angeles, Reeds was found stabbed to death in the parking lot of Promenade on the Peninsula Shopping Center in Rolling Hills Estates on May 3, 2018. Townsend, who dropped her phone in the parking lot near the murder, was arrested at gunpoint and considered to be the sole suspect in the case based on evidence that showed her car parked near the murder scene. Police suspected the crime to be a random robbery with Reeds stabbed a dozen times and her throat slit.
Townsend’s mugshot was plastered over local news outlets as she maintained her innocence. Townsends’s lawyer Nazareth Haysbert told The Advocate her client was racially profiled during the interrogation process. Officers reportedly told Townsend she didn’t belong in the neighborhood because she didn’t have enough money to shop there. Rolling Hills is an affluent neighborhood with predominately white residents. Townsend is black.
Townsend spent six nights in jail and suffered a fainting spell before being released with no charges. Despite naming her a suspect in a press conference days after the murder, Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell said she was released due to lack of evidence.
The judge’s decision to lift the stay on Townsend civil rights lawsuit can create sweeping changes in how persons of interest are treated after an arrest. The case is a wonder to many because police have yet to find Reeds’ killer. The criminal case also still names Townsend as a suspect despite being released from jail.
“It’s a major decision,” Beverly Hills attorney Pat Harris told NBC Los Angeles “What this judge is ruling is, he is saying, ‘Look, law enforcement: You’ve had an opportunity to investigate this. You arrested her. You released her. You then turned around and have had a year to go out and find any evidence against her. You didn’t. Well, we’re not going to allow this to drag on forever.'”
McDonnell has defended his decision to publicly name her in the case. “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. “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.”
Now suffering from PTSD from the incident, Townsend has stayed true to her story. “I still have this dark cloud over my head because from the moment I was released [from jail] they still went on TV and said, ‘We think we have the right person,” Townsend said.