Dorothy Richardson has never thought much of police officers. "Got no use for them," snaps the 60-year-old retiree, whose night table is stacked with medications for arthritis and other assorted ailments. "Survived so far without them and I'll survive the rest. Shoot, I don't even call the police when trouble come around here."
With good reason, if the events of this past February 24 are any indication. On that night, Metro-Dade cops pulled up to her Liberty City home to settle a dispute between Richardson and her crack-addicted son, who was demanding money from her. Not only did two officers wrestle her son into custody, but they returned the next evening to charge the cane-hobbled widow with battery on a police officer, for her role in the ruckus. Specifically, she is alleged to have pulled officer Alfredo Hernandez's hair.
Richardson counters that police -- and Janet Reno's Dade State Attorney's Office -- have turned the two-bit spat into an interminable legal persecution. She insists she merely tapped Hernandez's coif to get his attention and angrily predicts that the charge, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in state prison, will wilt in front of a jury. To that end, Richardson has flatly refused the prosecutor's plea offer, which would have placed her on probation for eight months and required her to attend anger-control classes. She now awaits a trial that is slated to begin as early as this week.
"I ain't no kid. I'm 60 years old," Richardson states. "I know better than to go hitting a policeman. I ain't never been in jail. I never been in court. Only time I've ever been in front of a judge was to get married. And they're trying to mess up my record on account of some lying policeman."
In fact, Richardson says, there would have been no trouble in the first place had the police steered clear of her family travails. She says that she shooed her son away when he began badgering her with requests for money, and she walked to the home of her daughter Theresa, who lives nearby. When the two women returned, they discovered that 28-year-old Wendell had, inexplicably, called the police.
Ironically, it was Dorothy Richardson who initially attempted to explain the situation to the officers. But before she could finish, Wendell returned to his mother's front yard, reiterating his demand that she give him two dollars. When officer Welma Moss tried to place him under arrest for disorderly conduct, Wendell took a swing at her and fled on foot. Moss chased him down and, along with Hernandez, who had responded to Moss's call for back-up, began struggling to handcuff him. Wendell Richardson was arrested for disorderly contact, resisting arrest with violence, and battery against a police officer. He spent three months in jail before his release in May.
"They were choking my son," storms Richardson, who is listed in Wendell's arrest report as the sole witness. "So I said, `Officer, you already cuffed him. Now just put him in the back of the car.' Then I touched the police's head. Just touched him. He said, `You under arrest! You touched me!' I said, I just can't take any more of this nonsense, so I went inside." Later, Richardson says, Hernandez and another officer approached her gate and told her that no charges would be filed if she apologized. She says she grudgingly complied and considered the matter closed. But the next evening police returned and took her into custody, where she remained for three hours.
Officer Alfredo Hernandez maintains that no one ever put Wendell Richardson in a choke hold and contends that both arrests were perfectly legitimate. "She didn't tap me at all," he says. "She yanked my hair; there's a difference. Picture somebody grabbing your hair and using all their weight to pull upward. I wouldn't have charged her if it wasn't pretty hard."
Hernandez does concede that the alleged follicular tug did not pose an immediate threat to him. "The seriousness of it doesn't come into play," he stresses. "The fact that it happened is what's in question here. She had no right to touch a police officer and she grabbed me by the hair. She actually got some hair." The officer, who gave his deposition in late April, says he does not recall hearing Richardson apologize for her actions -- until the next night, after she was arrested.
The arrest was delayed, Hernandez adds, because a small crowd had gathered. "The scene might have escalated into something unnecessary," he says, so he waited until the next day -- and consulted with a prosecutor from the State Attorney's Office -- before deciding to arrest Dorothy Richardson. Welma Moss, the state's only other witness, backs Hernandez's account, but says she was too busy grappling with Wendell Richardson to note what precisely his mother had done to her colleague.
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Other witnesses remember the scene differently. Not surprisingly, Theresa Richardson relates a version of events identical to her mother's. More striking corroboration comes from neighbor Gerardo Hernandez. "When I came out, the two cops had Miss Richardson's boy on the ground, handcuffed, and one had a choke hold on him. She came outside and said to the officer, `Excuse me,' and touched him twice," Hernandez says, tapping the air gently in demonstration. "That's it. She did not commit a crime. She touched his head. She didn't pull any hair. Not that I saw, no sir."
As her case slogs through the state court system, Richardson has grown increasingly frustrated. "This has been going on since February. I been to court six damn times. This foolishness has got to stop. That police is just putting a lie on me and lies don't sit in God's book," she rasps, waving her cane at the portrait of Jesus that dominates her tiny sitting room. "They got kids out there all over the place selling drugs and doing crime. I'm on medication. Why they want to waste their time on me?"
Rosa Rodriguez, Richardson's public defender, wonders the same thing. Rodriguez classifies the case as "absolutely ludicrous," especially given that Alfredo Hernandez had a full day to consider whether the charge was worth filing. "If what she did was so heinous, why didn't they haul her off right then?" Rodriguez asks. She says she understands her client's refusal to accept the prosecutor's plea. "The question should be: What is the State Attorney's Office doing, taking on cases like this in the first place? I mean, when this woman was in court, it was pathetic. She was struggling to get up to the podium." (Prosecutor Dan Gonzalez says he cannot comment on pending cases.)
Hernandez remains undeterred: "That was a good, solid arrest. No question about it: What she did is a crime. She's alleging now that she's not, but that night in question she was very spry and active. She said she was sorry several times afterwards, but it was too late. She was under arrest.