The push for a second arrest in a shocking abduction case led Seattle police to jail the wrong man — and now may bring better policies for working with witnesses and presenting photos of possible suspects.
Randy LeShon Stevens could easily be serving hard time for a crime he didn’t commit.
Stevens was arrested in January 2013 after a Seattle waitress identified him as one of two men who held her captive, robbed her and said they were going to force her into prostitution. One of the men brandished a knife and threatened to kill her, but she escaped by jumping from a moving car, leaving her hospitalized for weeks, according to police reports.
After more than a month of rehabilitation, the victim was unable to pick out Stevens from two separate photo montages shown to her by Seattle police Vice Detective Todd Novisedlak. It wasn’t until Novisedlak dug up a driver’s license photo of Stevens that the victim identified him as one of the two men who had kidnapped and terrorized her.
She was wrong. So was the detective, who was criticized following an internal investigation for showing the victim a single photo of a suspect. Still, there was never a public admission by police or King County prosecutors that they had arrested the wrong person and charged him with a disturbing crime.
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King County paid Stevens $6,000 to avoid a lawsuit after the charges were dropped and he was released from jail. Seattle police face a lawsuit filed on behalf of Stevens in federal court, alleging false arrest, false imprisonment and outrageous conduct by the detective.
But the lasting legacy of Stevens’ arrest may well be its effect on how Seattle police identify criminal suspects in the future.
The case prompted the department to review and update its policies for identifying suspects through photo montages and in live, in-person lineups and “show-ups,” where a suspect is shown to a victim at a crime scene.
Police, prosecutors, college professors and Innocence Project Northwest lawyers in King County have formed a working group to draft guidelines for police to help ensure innocent people like Stevens aren’t convicted by mistake.
According to data compiled by the University of Michigan Law School, 37 Washington residents have been exonerated of crimes that sent them to prison since 1997, mostly because of advances in obtaining and analyzing DNA. But five of those false convictions are directly attributed to mistaken-witness identifications, like in the case of Stevens.
Studies have shown that witness identifications are notoriously unreliable and that witnesses are easily manipulated and subject to suggestion. The Innocence Project estimates 75 percent of the cases where an individual is convicted and later exonerated through DNA involved eyewitness identifications.
In some ways, the Stevens case represents a success in that prosecutors recognized the problem shortly after the arrest. As a result, he spent just a week behind bars.
Consider the case of Brandon Olebar, who was picked out of a photo montage by the victim of a burglary, assault and robbery in King County and spent 10 years in prison. He was cleared after Innocence Project investigators tracked down the real culprits, who swore Olebar wasn’t involved. He received $550,000 from the state when he was released in 2013.
While what happened to Stevens may be an injustice, what happened to “J.C.” — the victim of the crime Stevens was accused of — was a nightmare.
The 22-year-old left her job as a waitress near South Lake Union to meet friends at a bar in Pioneer Square on Nov. 18, 2011. According to police reports, she remembers walking into the bar with her friends and nothing else until the next morning.
When she awoke alone on the floor of a sparsely furnished apartment in the Rainier Valley, she was greeted by a man she didn’t know, she told detectives.
She tried to find her cellphone, but the man, who introduced himself as “Reek,” said he had taken it, along with her wallet. That man, later identified as Tariq Shabazz, said he planned to take J.C. to Las Vegas, where she would work as a prostitute to “earn his money.”
While keeping her cellphone, he gave her a scrap of paper with the word “Reek” and his cellphone number on it. He then called another woman, who came to the apartment in a car and the three of them left.
Shabazz and the woman drove J.C. to Queen Anne, where the other woman took J.C.’s keys and made copies of them. There, they also were joined by another man — later mistakenly identified as Stevens — who got into the car.
That man took her driver’s license, passport and her purse and cash. At one point he pulled a large knife and threatened to kill J.C. because she knew too much.
According to court documents, J.C. — “fearing greatly for her life” — jumped from the moving car, suffering a severe head injury. She was critically injured and hospitalized for several weeks.
It was January 2012 before she was able to work with police. With Seattle police Detective Novisedlak’s help, J.C. was able to locate the house where she woke up that morning. The renter was Shabazz.
The phone number provided by his landlord matched the number on the scrap of paper J.C. had been given before jumping out of the car, according to reports.
It would take almost a year of investigation before Stevens was charged, according to court documents. Records show Shabazz fled to Northern California shortly after the incident.
The detective got warrants for phone records and obtained two numbers that were called the morning of Nov. 19, when J.C. was held captive. One number belonged to the woman who had driven them. The other, Novisedlak found after searching several databases, had been used by a man named Randy Stevens.
Documents obtained from the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office by The Seattle Times through a public-disclosure request show that Novisedlak found a 2008 jail-booking photo of a “Randy Stevens,” whose description was “consistent, in a general sense, with the description” given by J.C. of the second man.
Frank Cornelius, a Federal Way attorney representing Stevens in his claim against the SPD, framed it another way: “The suspect sought was African American. Stevens is African American, and Detective Novisedlak concluded he was the second suspect.”
According to reports, Novisedlak put together a photo montage with Stevens’ photo tucked among several others, but J.C. was unable to identify him. A second montage with another, older photograph of Stevens was no more successful.
Novisedlak then located a more recent, driver’s license photograph of Stevens, and showed the single photo to J.C., asking only if she had ever seen him before.
“[J.C.] positively identified Stevens” as the second man,” Novisedlak wrote in a criminal complaint.
Stevens was issued a summons and appeared in court on Jan. 2, 2013, to answer felony charges of first-degree kidnapping, first-degree robbery and human trafficking. He faced more than a dozen years in prison if convicted.
Initially, however, a judge found the complaint didn’t make clear a connection between Stevens and Shabazz, and Stevens was released. An amended complaint explaining J.C.’s “positive identification” of Stevens and the telephone connection was filed the following day, and Stevens was arrested and jailed, with bail set at $500,000.
From the outset, Stevens’ defense attorney, Evgeniya Mordekhova of the Northwest Defenders Association, questioned the identification. In an email sent to Senior Deputy King County Prosecutor Val Richey on the day Stevens was taken into custody, she questioned the method used to identify Stevens as the second suspect: “Single photo, really?”
Mordekhova pointed out that Stevens didn’t fit the physical description of the second suspect, despite J.C.’s purported identification. And he’d never lived in California, while the phone number supposedly linking him to Shabazz had a 707 area code, for the East Bay Area of Northern California.
Stevens said he did not know Shabazz, who police had tracked to Oakland, Calif.
The documents indicate Richey, the prosecutor, began to have doubts himself after Mordekhova filed a motion to challenge the identification and started inquiring about how that phone number had been tracked to her client.
Kerri Bradford, a paralegal in the prosecutor’s office, began to retrace the detective’s steps, according to court documents, and “discovered that the middle initial for the Randy Stevens linked to the phone was different from the Randy Stevens who had been charged.”
Novisedlak, the detective, went back to J.C., who “reported that she had identified Mr. Stevens as ‘looking like’ the second suspect, but was not 100 percent sure.”
The charges against Stevens were dismissedand he was released on Jan. 15, 2013, following an emergency hearing.
Novisedlak was eventually able to identify the person using that 707 phone number as William Austin Lawson, whom J.C. was able to identify as the second man. He was charged in 2013, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to two years in prison.
Shabazz was convicted and sentenced to seven years.
Novisedlak’s actions were reviewed by the SPD’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), which found he “incorrectly used a single-photo-identification method as the basis” to arrest and charge Stevens, but concluded it was an honest mistake.
OPA Director Pierce Murphy wrote to Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole in December 2014 stating the department needs to revamp its eyewitness-identification policy in line with current best practices and scientific research. O’Toole agreed and has ordered the department’s policy updated.
But that may not be a simple task, as evidenced by the efforts of the King County Eyewitness Working Group, which has been studying the issue for five years.
“We’ve been working on improving the landscape and increasingly the reliability of eyewitness identifications,” said group member Lara Zarowsky, a lecturer at the University of Washington School of Law and the policy director of the Northwest Innocence Project.
Eventually, the group will issue recommended minimum standards for law enforcement and prosecutors to maintain the integrity of an investigation, ensure the suspect’s due-process rights are protected, and not further traumatize the victim.
The group is close, she said, but “we aren’t quite ready to go prime-time with it yet.” She declined to provide a copy of the draft.
Other working-group members include Mark Larson, the chief deputy in the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office; Dr. Stephen Ross, a psychologist and noted expert on eyewitness identification from the University of Washington, Tacoma; and Nathan Janes, a homicide detective with the Seattle Police Department.
Currently, there are no national-standard procedures for conducting eyewitness identifications, and many departments and detectives use outdated methods prone to mistakes.
“They sort of all have their own ways of doing it,” said Zarowsky. “They can make simple but egregious mistakes out of ignorance of the science involved.”
Last October, the National Academy of Sciences released “Identifying the Culprit,” a landmark report on the fallibility of memory and eyewitness identification, and urged reform of the procedures commonly used by police departments.
The big problem, Zarowsky explained, is that witnesses are vulnerable to suggestion and often feel pressure to “make a choice,” even when it’s a wrong one.
Several key reforms are suggested, and Detective Janes said the SPD will likely incorporate most of them. Key among them is that photo montages and lineups would be administered “blind” by someone who would not know if the suspect’s photo or the suspect is even on view.
Janes said he prefers to have his witnesses view the photographs on a computer.
Zarowsky said photo montages should contain at least seven photographs — the suspect’s and six “fillers” — none of which can stand out.
“The fillers have to match the description given by the witness,” she said.
Witnesses also should be instructed that a suspect might or might not be in the lineup or the photo montage, and they should not be pressured to make a choice. If they identify someone, they should be asked to make a “confidence statement” detailing how sure they are.
That avoids “confidence inflation,” commonly seen in witnesses as they approach a trial.
Finally, Zarowsky said, the entire process should be recorded.
“Law enforcement has to understand they get one bite at the apple,” she said. “I don’t think they know how much more reliable their identifications would be, and how much stronger their investigations would be, if they followed these simple procedures.”