Saturday, March 13, 2004
Mistaken Arrests Leave Pr. George's Murder Unsolved
( For nearly a year after Denise Mansfield was strangled in her Prince George's County home last June, police focused their investigation on three female suspects whose identities were a mystery. A surveillance camera videotaped them getting cash from an automated teller machine where Mansfield's missing debit card was used after her slaying. The time of the withdrawal from the dead woman's account, recorded by a bank computer, corresponded to the times stamped on the ATM video of the suspects.

But who were they?

Detectives finally got the answer in late March, after the Fox television program "America's Most Wanted" aired still images from the video and a viewer called the show to say he recognized the three. They were Virginia Shelton, 46; her daughter, Shirley, 16; and one of Shirley's friends, Jennifer Starkey, 17, all of Sierra Vista, Ariz. Shelton, a Wal-Mart clerk, and the two girls, both high school students, had been in the Washington area visiting Shelton's mother when Mansfield, 45, was killed.

On April 22, during lengthy interrogations by Prince George's detectives at the Sierra Vista police station, the three readily agreed that they were pictured in the video and acknowledged using the ATM at a SunTrust Bank near Mansfield's home in Mitchellville. In recent interviews with The Washington Post, however, they said they told the detectives again and again that they had not used a stolen card and knew nothing about a killing. Nevertheless, each was charged with first-degree murder.

Yet they had done nothing wrong.

The Arizona suspects were just the latest of five innocent people to be jailed and eventually exonerated in a homicide case that remains unsolved, hampered for months by investigative mistakes. The Sheltons and Starkey, who were held for three weeks before being freed, allege that Prince George's detectives were carelessly overzealous and that police obtained arrest warrants for them by lying in a court affidavit, saying the three admitted in interrogations that they had used the victim's debit card.

"To be honest, I think they just wanted somebody to lock up," Virginia Shelton said. "I couldn't believe the way detectives work. Our justice system is no good. We have a Constitution, and they don't follow it."

The biggest mistake in the case, which came to light after the three Arizona residents were arrested April 22, was the faulty assumption that the bank's transaction computer and the ATM camera kept synchronized time. As it turns out, they did not. Although the Sheltons and Starkey, on the videotape, seemed to be standing at the teller machine at the same time $200 was withdrawn from Mansfield's account, the three actually got money from the ATM several minutes earlier, with legitimate cards, a prosecutor has determined.

Transaction records for the cards used by Starkey and the Sheltons show that the three were at the ATM earlier than the time stamped on the video. Detectives had those records on the day of the interrogations, but it is unclear whether they closely examined them before making the arrests. If they did study the records, they overlooked or disregarded key information.

The murder charges were dropped only after Starkey's father took it upon himself to gather his own copy of the records, then fly from Arizona to Maryland and ask a Prince George's prosecutor to review the records.

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