HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - WHNT News 19 promised to follow through on a Taking Action Investigation for a US Army reservist named Steven McDowell, who was wrongfully accused by police and prosecutors of two burglaries. Prosecutors dropped the charges against McDowell back in July, as our Taking Action Investigation revealed clear differences between McDowell and the man shown on surveillance footage.
But, the wrongful arrest still saddled McDowell with thousands of dollars of debt. Now, he is in a time crunch to afford the expungement process fees so his once-clean record is not permanently stained with charges for crimes he never committed.
How We Got Here
After a Taking Action Investigation that lasted upwards of three months, prosecutors finally dropped burglary charges against Steven McDowell, an Army reservist who was arrested based on security footage from two burglaries with no other meaningful evidence against him.
Police had relatively clear images of the man who burglarized both a Huntsville Utilities office and A-Pawn pawn shop on Blue Spring Road on May 1, 2016. The Madison County District Attorney's Office maintained for months that the man in those images was PFC Steven McDowell.
But, Steven and his family pointed out the differences they thought were obvious. In their investigative report, Huntsville Police investigators noted they didn't think McDowell's mother, Tam Jackson, looked at the photos long enough to determine if it was, in fact, her son. She recalls it this way, "I looked at the picture and handed it right back to them cause it's like, how do you not know your own kid? Like, why do you need to study a photograph to see is this really my kid? Ya know? No. It's not him."
Jackson, who spoke to us throughout the investigation because McDowell was worried about damaging his case, continuously pointed out that Steven's skin is lighter than the offender in the pictures, his eyes closer together, his lips lighter-colored and different sizes. She also pointed out a chicken pox scar on the left side of his face and his nose, which Jackson notes isn't the same size or structure of the burglar.
She told WHNT News 19, "I just want people to see that this isn't my baby."
Then, finally, prosecutors saw that too. Prosecutor Jeff McCluskey filed for what's called a "Nolle Prosse," meaning the DA's office would not prosecute the case. The motion documented that the DA's office had analyzed the photos time and time again, even attempting to have them enhanced to see if they could reveal Steven's distinctive chicken pox scar.
The next day, Steven's public defender filed a motion to dismiss the charges with prejudice because Steven is innocent. This means that McDowell would never be tried for those crimes again.
The prosecutor in the case agreed and told WHNT News 19 he would do everything in his power to push through the dismissal, which was granted the day our story was set to air.
Police arrested a new suspect in the case, Derrick Hines. Court records indicate Hines had a felon exam in August, but no other date is set.
The Cost of Innocence
When a judge dismissed the case with prejudice on July 13, it meant McDowell could apply for expungement. This means McDowell can file paperwork to get the charges removed from his record.
A check of Alabama court records still shows two felony burglary charges for McDowell. During our initial investigation, we told you McDowell had a clean record prior to this wrongful accusation. But, in order to file for the removal of charges, McDowell must still pay $300 each for the two felony burglary charges on his record. Unfortunately, this is not the only cost on the innocent man's plate.
"How can you have faith in the system, if that system has proven you innocent, but you still have to go through the same means as everyone else?" McDowell asked WHNT News 19.
McDowell said he still owes around $3,500 total for this misidentification case. That includes the $600 for expungement, and thousands of dollars to pay off the bond that got McDowell out of jail initially.
"It's too much money," McDowell said. "It's too much money, it's a lot."
Thankfully, Adrian Muller with Alabama Non-Violent Offender Organization (ANVOO) is helping out with some of the expenses. ANVOO is paying $300 to cover the cost to file for the expungement of one charge and $300 to help catch McDowell up on his utilities bill. He has fallen behind while trying to pay back what he owes for this case. The goal is for the second $300 from ANVOO to free up money for McDowell to pay that second fee.
"That can be a real burden on an individual because they just don't have the resources," Muller said.
McDowell is doing the best he can financially in regard to this situation. He has a job and still serves in the United States Army Reserves. But, it is causing him hardship. Plus, McDowell is worried about his future if the expungement process falls through.
"Let's just say I went to an outside city, they hadn't heard this case, and there were two felony burglaries. They're going to automatically think, 'Well he's going to steal from our company,'" McDowell said regarding his concerns.
After prosecutors dropped this case on July 13, they promised to help with the expungement process in any way he could. The Madison County District Attorney's Office cannot do anything until McDowell files for expungement. McDowell cannot do that until he can afford the filing. He has until October 21. Still, District Attorney Rob Broussard said the promise to help is still on the table once McDowell does the paperwork.
Still, District Attorney Rob Broussard said the promise to help is still on the table once McDowell does the paperwork.
"We have a say in it," Broussard said of his office's role in the expungement process. "So, if our say in it is, 'Yes Judge, we're with him. Expungement is due to be issued on this case,' then that's what we'll do."
Alabama's Expungement Law
Under Alabama's Expungement Law, a person who is charged with a non-violent felony or misdemeanor, but never convicted, is able to file to remove the charges from his/her record.
You can learn more about Alabama's expungement law by visiting www.alea.gov/Documents/Forms/Expungement-Kit.
If You Would Like to Help McDowell Clear his Record . . .
There is a fund set up for McDowell at Redstone Federal Credit Union. If anyone would feel inclined to help McDowell over this hurdle, people may donate to the McDowell Donation Fund. Tam Jackson, McDowell's mother, said the fund will only stay open for six months. The money will be used to pay the fees associated with the case, then to help McDowell move forward as he works to rebuild following this burden.
People can give at any Redstone Federal Credit Union branch or online. The account number is 51013228115. For people who do not have an account with Redstone Federal Credit Union, you can donate at a branch or online at www.redfcu.org by using the account number as well as the routing number 262275835.
People may also donate to McDowell's cause through PayPal to firstname.lastname@example.org. The money goes into the same account.