The Columbian
Thursday, May 20, 2004

Woman freed after
wrongful theft conviction

By JEFFREY MIZE, Columbian staff writer

A 24-year-old Vancouver woman who spent more than three months in jail was freed Wednesday after a judge agreed she had been wrongfully convicted of shoplifting.

District Court Judge Vern Schreiber overrode Reshenda Strickland's Feb. 13 conviction and ordered her released from the Clark County Jail Work Center. Strickland had received a six-month jail sentence.

Schreiber's ruling came after City Prosecutor Josephine Townsend reviewed the store's surveillance videotape and concluded that Starlisha Strickland, Reshenda's 21-year-old sister, actually committed the crime.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People took on the case and hired an attorney to represent Reshenda Strickland.

"The system failed Reshenda Strickland," Earl Ford, president of the NAACP's Vancouver branch, said after Schreiber's decision. "If we had not intervened and gotten this case before the court at some cost, she might still be in jail.

"All this victory says today is if you can pay for it, you can still get justice. And that's something fundamentally wrong about our system."

Ford believes race played a role in the conviction of Strickland, who is black.

"Folks say we all look alike," he said. "I think that happened in this case."

Lou Byrd, an attorney hired by the NAACP to get Strickland out of jail, echoed Ford's comment.

"We don't all look the same," he said. "That girl is at least two shades lighter than the defendant.

"There was a process to reverse the outcome, but it took a while," Byrd concluded. "Justice was ultimately served."

Townsend, however, isn't sure race was a factor.

Townsend said Reshenda Strickland has a mole above the right side of her mouth that her sister does not have, something Townsend spotted by examining the videotape frame by frame.

"If two people closely resemble each other, there is a chance that people are going to confuse them," she said. "I don't think it comes down to race. I do think it comes down to looking at what evidence was and was not presented.

"The system has faults," she said. "Juries and people are not perfect."

In this case, an all-white jury deliberated for less than an hour before finding Strickland guilty of shoplifting from TJ Maxx, 8101 N.E. Parkway Drive.

The jury watched the store's surveillance tape and heard testimony from Kathy Hanna, the store's manager, and Dawn Porter, a loss prevention officer. Both testified they were "100 percent" certain that Strickland had stolen baby shoes and other items from the store on March 21, 2003.

Strickland was not arrested that day. She was later charged with third-degree theft and fourth-degree assault for allegedly pushing Porter in a confrontation outside the store.

At trial, Hanna testified that she recognized Strickland because she had made several large returns, without receipts, prior to March 21, 2003.

Schreiber, citing Strickland's past theft convictions, sentenced her to six months in jail.

"You've gotten your hands slapped in the past; it didn't work out," Schreiber told her during sentencing. "This time you're going to sit it out. You're going to get the 180 days."

Strickland was represented by Jason Bailes, a court-appointed attorney, during her trial.

Bailes didn't call any witnesses. Instead, he asked the jury to compare his client with the woman on the videotape.

"It's as simple as that," Bailes said during closing arguments. "Does the tape prove that is her?"

Bailes later told The Columbian that he advised Strickland to encourage her sister to confess to the crime. Two other women, both of them relatives of Strickland who had been present during the March 2003 incident, didn't show up to testify at the trial, he said.

Starlisha Strickland, during an earlier interview with The Columbian, said she had been staying in Atlanta and didn't even know her sister had been charged.

"I'm not going to let my sister sit in jail for something I've done," she said.

Starlisha Strickland confessed to the crime before Schreiber on Wednesday and was taken into custody. Bail was set at $1,500.