Copping an Attitude

Public complaints about racism have created firestorms of recrimination at the Glendale police department. Is psychological counseling a remedy for the conflict -- or retaliation against officers who spoke out?

Neither Whitson nor Clayton posed another question to Withey after Withey asked for an attorney. But the tape later revealed that Whitson continued to converse with the suspect for several seconds.

"You want to see a lawyer," Whitson told Withey. "That's fine."
"Yeah, because I'm telling the truth."
"No, you are not telling the truth."

Whitson then told Withey that the testimony of a pediatrician would "fry your ass" at trial.

Within a minute, the detectives silently walked Withey to a holding cell. Clayton left the station as Whitson completed paperwork at a desk near the cell.

About 15 minutes later, Withey later testified, he called to Whitson from his cell. "I asked her if I can talk to her a little bit more," he recalled. "She kind of ignored me."

Whitson says she finally asked Withey what he wanted.
"He says to me, 'You got me nailed, and I want to tell the truth,' or words to that effect, and I stop him right there. I buy time because I know there's going to be an issue here. I wanted someone else present. I take Withey to an interview room and tell him to think hard about what he wants to do."

Whitson called Clayton, who returned within minutes. In a taped interview, Clayton started by asking Withey, "You said you wanted a lawyer earlier. Are you willing to talk without a lawyer?"

"That's your desire, right? No one asked you to do that?"
Withey spun a horrifying tale.

"I got pissed off at him and I did smash him," he told the cops. "But he didn't hit no ground, he didn't get the knee. . . . I threw him as hard as I could on the bed. And I hit him three times with my hand. Open hand."

Withey demonstrated exactly what he meant with a karate-chop motion.
"I really didn't know what to do. I really kind of panicked. And I did rock the heck out of him. I shook him. . . . I'm so sorry. I really am. I'm sorry I lied to you about it."

Withey later wrote several letters to his girlfriend in which he also confessed to the crimes. Little Daniel, by the way, survived his severe beating, though it isn't certain how his recovery will progress. Doctors testified in 1994 that permanent brain damage was likely.

Eighteen months passed, and Ed Withey's case edged toward trial in September 1994. Shortly before jury selection, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Robert Hertzberg held a hearing to discern whether Withey's post-Miranda admissions had been made voluntarily.

During the hearing, Withey's lawyer asked Whitson, "Would you recall if anyone said, be it you or Detective Clayton, something about 'frying your ass'? Was that said?"

"No," Whitson replied, echoing Clayton's testimony.
After testifying that day, Whitson says, she started to mull over the sequence of events in the polygrapher's office.

"I hadn't remembered the 'fry your ass' comment and neither had Clayton," Whitson recalls. "I'm from the South, and we fry everything--meat, vegetables, corn bread. It was a poor choice of words. But in my mind as I'm sittin' here right now, I had stopped any interrogation."

That night, Whitson and case prosecutor Jean Hoag listened, allegedly for the first time, to the tape recording that included the "fry your ass" comment.

The next morning, Hoag told Judge Hertzberg that Whitson had testified inaccurately. The judge, however, announced he still was going to rule that Withey's confession had been voluntary.

A jury convicted Withey of felony child abuse. Judge Hertzberg then sentenced Withey to 24 years in prison.

That's where things lay until this April 30, when the Arizona Court of Appeals unanimously overturned his conviction, citing "impermissible police conduct" on Whitson's part.

The County Attorney's Office sent a copy of the appellate ruling to the Glendale P.D. Chief Dobrotka says he ordered an internal investigation after he saw the court's opinion and a copy of Whitson's conflicting testimony.

But police records indicate Glendale Sergeant John Dempsey, not Chief Dobrotka, made the initial complaint against Whitson. The distinction is important:

Dempsey, Whitson says, is a pal of Preston Becker, the sergeant who came under fire in the earlier New Times story for erring badly in an affidavit that led to a search of the home of Balkcom's son.

Whitson claims she and Dempsey have had a checkered history. "He plain doesn't like me or whatever it is he thinks I stand for," she says. "Dempsey is buddies with all those officers we've been talking about. Those guys were pissed at being named in the story, at being exposed. He must have drooled when he saw the court decision. But he didn't do his homework at all."

Responds Dempsey: "Yes, I am friends with Preston, but that truly had no bearing on what went on here. Two detectives came to me stating that Jean Hoag was pretty upset about a reversal on a case. They never said Whitson was involved. I called Jean, but she didn't call back at first.

"A few days later, I received a copy of the court's ruling. I read it, and there were some pretty serious issues concerning our liability to civil rights issues, plus cost issues in a retrial, plus publicity issues because of police misconduct causing a convicted child abuser to walk. I was obligated to let my chain of command know what was going on, and I did. A little bit later, I was instructed to talk to Ms. Hoag, and so I did.

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