“It’s a once in a lifetime occurrence”
On September 11, 2014 Patrick Wayne Harper was arrested for the murder of Andrea Lafon. Lafon had been shot and killed in a marijuana drug deal that witnesses say went sideways. Harper, who was 17 at the time, was going to be tried as an adult.
The police had trouble identifying Harper as the shooter early in their investigation, but made the arrest based on a witness, who was in the car when Lafon was shot, identifying Harper as the shooter. However, when the North Las Vegas police later showed this same witness a photo of Harper the witness was unable to say who it was, according to a police report. This witness was also taken to Harper’s school to see him and still did not recognize him.
Harper was arrested by then Detective Jesus Prieto. During transport to the police station Harper offered multiple times to take a drug test to prove that he had never smoked marijuana, but former Detective Prieto declined. He responded to Harper by saying, “No. You’re done. Throw yourself in.” Former Detective Prieto had already decided Harper was guilty.
Harper also adamantly told the police he had an alibi, he told the police that he gotten a slushie at an AMPM and then gone to the high school football game at the time of the murder. The police did not check out his alibi, but Private Investigator Toby Tobiasson, at the behest of Harper’s attorney Kristina Wildeveld, did.
With a court order, Tobiasson obtained video footage of Harper leaving an AMPM at 7:14 p.m. on the day of the murder. The AMPM was 1.5 miles east from where the shooting took place. The police publicly insisted that the shooting took place at 7:18 p.m. However, police reports show that 911 was called at 7:18 p.m. and the witness who was in the car with Lafon got out of the car, pulled Lafon from the driver’s seat and then tried to wave cars down to call 911. The exact amount of time this took is uncertain, but the shooting did take place before 7:18 p.m.
Harper had four minutes, likely less, to travel 1.5 miles from the convenience store to the location of the shooting, get into Lafon’s car, start to participate in a drug deal, shoot her in the head, then arrive back at the high school football game. All without access to a vehicle. In addition to the near impossibility of Harper being in two places at once, the classmates, who were involved with the drug deal, later recanted and indicated they were pressured into implicating Harper. Additionally, a witness indicated that the shooter was wearing a white shirt and Harper was wearing a dark colored shirt on the surveillance camera.
The Clark County district attorney’s office dropped all charges against Harper on September 24, 2014 after he had spent 13 days behind bars. Harper’s attorney said that this case was a “once in a lifetime occurrence,” and that in all the 20 years she had practiced law she had not seen a case like this.
But, this was not a once in a lifetime experience for former Detective Prieto. Former Detective Prieto had experienced arresting an innocent black man for a crime he did not and could not have committed at least once before. Similarly to Harper, Rickie Slaughter was arrested for a crime which he could not have committed because he was also unable to be in two places at once.
Unlike Harper, Rickie was wrongfully convicted of murder and is still serving a sentence for this crime he did not commit. In addition to being miles away from the crime when it occurred, Rickie did not match the descriptions of the perpetrators. Rickie’s conviction rests on a faulty photo lineup in which his image was brighter than all of the other images which is known to subconsciously draw one’s attention. Additionally, unlike the public recantation of the witnesses in Harper’s case, the police conducted a second more fair lineup in which Rickie was not identified, but this information was never made public nor was it shared with Rickie’s attorney.
But, Rickie’s story is not over. Rickie’s mistreatment did not end at sentencing. He has been shot in prison by correctional officer’s, which left 17 pellets lodged in his face. Now Rickie is at risk of contracting COVID-19 in a prison that has not put in place enough precautions to keep the prisoners safe. Two prisoners had to protest simply to get tested for COVID-19.
The misidentification and subsequent arrest or incarceration of innocent Black men is not a once in a lifetime occurrence. It is prevalent, but it is swept under the rug as an abnormal or infrequent event. This pattern is not the fault of one questionable former detective, like Jesus Prieto. The criminal justice system is not broken, it was created to unequally target POC and people of lower economic status, especially Black men. Every day that Rickie spends in a cell for a crime that he did not commit solidifies the foundations of a criminal justice system that failed him and so many others, like Patrick Wayne Harper. Black Lives Matter and that includes the lives of Black people who have been wrongfully incarcerated.
“I wish I could say that racism and prejudice were only distant memories. We must dissent from the indifference. We must dissent from the apathy. We must dissent from the fear, the hatred and the mistrust…We must dissent because America can do better, because America has no choice but to do better.” ― Thurgood Marshall
We need to do better for Patrick Wayne Harper. We need to do better for Rickie Slaughter. We need to do better.