HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – The case of misidentification against a US army reservist stained his once-clean record and saddled him with thousands of dollars of debt. Huntsville Police arrested Private First Class Steven McDowell because they thought he looked like a burglar in surveillance video.
When McDowell and his mother reached out to WHNT News 19 in March, McDowell even had a trial date. But our Taking Action Investigation resulted in charges being dropped on July 13.
A couple months later, Madison County District Attorney Rob Broussard answered our questions about how an innocent person could come so close to a prison sentence.
“In this case, we got it right,” Broussard said in response to the misidentification of McDowell. “If this thing happened today, the exact same course would be followed. All you can do is just common sense, is there evidence here that give you probable cause to believe that guy did it, and if the answer is ‘yes,’ then we go forward and vet every possibility.”
Broussard saw the resemblance between McDowell and the man in the video too.
“In this particular case, the video footage of the perpetrator looked a whole lot like what turned out to be the wrong individual,” Broussard said.
Our viewers saw it differently. When we posted video comparing the images, comment after comment pointed out what many say are obvious differences between the two.
McDowell worries that without speaking up, he might have been a victim of stereotypes.
“If you just allow it to happen to you, and you don’t speak up afterward, or you don’t do anything about it afterward, then to me you weren’t even misidentified,” McDowell explained. “Because to me, you just felt like that was supposed to happen because of that common stereotype.”
Those ‘common stereotypes’ trouble Steven.
“It’s not so much a topic that people talk about, but it’s a very open and visual topic,” McDowell said. “People can see it happening.”
However, Broussard vehemently denies racial prejudice in the system.
“They call it ‘mass incarceration,'” Broussard said. “By that, they imply that it’s some racist system that is targeting a certain group of people which is the most ludicrous concept ever.”
Instead, Broussard asks, “Why don’t you call it what it is which is ‘mass criminality,'” Broussard challenged. “Why don’t you call it that? Because law enforcement on the street has better things to do than to target a group of people. Instead, they respond to criminal activity.”
Broussard said the problem doesn’t lie with prosecutors nor police, but with parents.
“You can’t look and say, ‘There’s an over-representation of this demographic, therefore there must be racism in the system,'” Broussard said. “I think there’s a lot of soul-searching that needs to be done across the board, all demographics, as far as how we’re raising our kids.”
As for the specific case against McDowell, who ultimately dropped the ball that landed this army reservist, who committed no crime, so close to a prison sentence?
“See, we’re not an investigative agency,” Broussard says. “We are the prosecuting authority. So, the initial stages of it, it’s whatever investigators with whatever local law enforcement out here, that’s their job to put it together and see if you can prove a case on somebody.”
Broussard says misidentification cases do happen. But, there’s normally more to them.
“Here’s the good news that the public should know, most cases have a lot more evidence in them than this particular case,” Broussard said.
Huntsville Police say they wouldn’t do anything different in this investigation either. In an email to me, a department spokesperson says, ‘Honestly, it doesn’t change anything on our end.’
Then, that email goes on to say, ‘Really all the investigator can do is take their investigative finding to a grand jury or D.A.’s office and let them decide whether or not a person gets charged.’
Now, McDowell is waiting on official expungement of his criminal charges. Another man is charged with the crimes investigators blamed on McDowell.