On June 25, 2014, the life of 50-year-old Tommy Wall of Harnett County, North Carolina, was turned upside down. He saw his face in a photo that the sheriff’s department released to the public and promptly turned himself in, whereupon he was charged with rape and sex-abuse charges against two children, one age 9 and one age 13. His bail was set at $1 million.
Wall had been mistakenly identified as the perpetrator by prosecutors based on a video of the incident. He eventually appeared in court and was released due to the judge’s recognition of the man in the video not being the man that stood before him.
But the damage had been done. During the 105 days of Wall’s incarceration, his reputation was ruined, he was fired from his job, and his home was auctioned off.
Wall is now jobless and homeless. He is living with his mother and trying to piece his life back together, all because of a case of mistaken identity.
Multiple readily available news outlets reported the initial story, all publishing Wall’s mugshot. Only one easily recovered story featured a detailed account of the falseness of the accusations, complete with quotes. Other sites merely added editors’ notes that updated the original stories to point out Wall’s innocence.
The victim of sloppy detective work, Wall was charged with perhaps the worst crime imaginable and now is forever associated on search engines with the words “child pornography.” Wall says he is considering suing the county.
Wall’s story should be a cautionary tale of the terrible consequences when the police, press and public condemn someone without substantial proof.
Clay, Ariel. “Willow Spring man fifth suspect in alleged Harnett County child porn operation.” WRAL.com. 21. Nov. 2014. <http://www.wral.com/fifth-person-arrested-in-alleged-sanford-child-porn-operation/13759944/ >
Clay, Ariel. “Willow Spring man makes first court appearance on child sex charges.” WRAL.com. 21 Nov 2014. <http://www.wral.com/willow-spring-man-makes-first-court-appearance-on-child-sex-charges/13764189/>
Dolan, Eric. “I was destroyed in 24 hours: Innocent man ruined by unbelievably sloppy sex crime investigation.” Raw Story. 30 Nov 2014. <http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2014/11/i-was-destroyed-in-24-hours-innocent-man-ruined-by-unbelievably-sloppy-sex-crime-investigation/>
Hastings, Deborah. “North Carolina cops bust daycare center that was really child porn ring.” Nydailynews.com. 25 June 2014. <http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/n-authorities-bust-daycare-center-child-porn-ring-article-1.1844217>
Herring, Brandon. “Suspect in Harnett Co. child porn ring appears in court.” WorldNow.com. 9 July 2014. <http://raycomgroup.worldnow.com/story/25872673/suspect-in-child-porn-ring-appears-in-court>
Student Researcher: Cameron Stroup (Frostburg State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Andy Duncan (Frostburg State University)