Truth Be Told
Last spring, Sherman Townsend met the man whose words had put him in prison—and whose testimony would also, eventually, set him free.
Sherman Townsend has always maintained his innocence
(page 1 of 4)Early one morning last May, Sherman Townsend was hustling through the chow line at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Moose Lake, grabbing some breakfast before heading to his job in the prison’s print shop, when he was stopped by a fellow inmate. The man asked Townsend if he was serving time for a crime committed in a northeast Minneapolis neighborhood in 1997. ¶ Townsend was stunned by the question. Indeed, nearly a decade earlier, the 57-year-old former printing-press operator had been convicted by a Hennepin County jury of breaking into a Dinkytown home and attacking a sleeping couple. A judge had doled out the stiffest sentence possible—20 years. But Townsend had long maintained he was innocent of the crime: He had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Townsend studied his interrogator and suddenly recognized him as David Anthony Jones, the chief witness in the trial against him. The two had encountered each other in court, but never spoken. He gritted his teeth and affirmed the connection.
Jones seemed dumbfounded. “I didn’t know you were locked up,” he said. He asked Townsend to meet him later. He had something important to tell him.
Photo by David Bowman.
“I made an effort to lie my ass off
on that stand,” says David Jones,
now in prison for an unrelated
Townsend didn’t say much. He asked Jones if he was willing to put everything down in a letter. Jones agreed, and the men parted. The conversation had lasted less than seven minutes.
Sherman Eliaz Townsend had haunted the streets of Dinkytown for years before he was detained by police on the morning of August 10, 1997. A lifelong St. Paul resident, he had briefly attended the University of Minnesota in the early 1970s, and Dinkytown became his favorite hangout. “I just fell in love with that neighborhood,” he says.
On the night of his arrest, Townsend, then 47, was feeling social. He had finished work, dropped by the Camel Club in St. Paul to shoot some pool, and spent some time at his girlfriend’s place. He was heading home around 1 a.m. when he changed his mind and pointed his car in the direction of Dinkytown. He and a few students he had met in the neighborhood months earlier had started a band. Connor was on guitar, Scott was on bass, and Townsend played the piano. “There was nobody on drums,” Townsend jokes. “We weren’t that good yet.”
The guys’ house, on Seventh Street, just north of the neighborhood’s commercial district, was dark when Townsend arrived. Maybe the boys would be home soon, he thought. He parked his ’84 Chrysler Laser in back, by the garage, then walked a few blocks to a convenience store and bought some cigarettes. As he retraced his steps, a squad car passed him and flashed its lights. The officer ordered him to stop and asked him for identification. He took stock of Townsend’s appearance (5-foot-10, 200-plus pounds, a mustache), then handcuffed Townsend and packed him in the back of the squad. What did I do? Townsend wanted to know. But the officer said nothing.
They drove a few blocks, until they reached a small beige house near the corner of Eight Street and 15th Avenue. A small crowd, including half a dozen police officers, was gathered outside the two-story structure. Nearly 45 minutes passed before the officer opened the door and hauled Townsend out. With spotlights shining in his eyes, it was difficult to see, but suddenly a young man emerged from the glare, leaning in close. “He came up to me and sniffed me and said, ‘You don’t smell like him.’” Townsend recalls. “I said, ‘What do you mean I don’t smell like him?’ And he said, ‘The guy and I got into a struggle and I got a good whiff of him. And you don’t smell like him.’” The attacker, he said, had tried to choke him.
The cops put Townsend back in the car, hauled him out briefly and made him stand in the lights again, and then drove him to the Second Precinct station. A sergeant read him his Miranda rights and began asking him questions. C’mon, Townsend replied, you’ve got the wrong guy. I was going to meet some friends. Just went for a pack of smokes. I didn’t even set foot on the block where the cops took me. “Do I look like someone who was in a fight or who just choked someone?” Townsend said.
To the officer, who had not mentioned anything about choking or a struggle, this seemed proof that Townsend knew more about the crime than he was admitting.
Shortly after 1:30 that morning, police had responded to an emergency call from a resident on the 1400 block of Eighth Street in the Dinkytown neighborhood. Officers arrived at the address to find a young white male standing in the front yard. He identified himself as the boyfriend of the woman who lived in the house.
That evening, the couple had watched a movie and then, shortly before midnight, gone to bed. Around 1:30 a.m., they had been jolted from their slumber by an intruder. The woman woke to find a hand covering her mouth and a man straddling her waist. She screamed, rousing her boyfriend beside her, but the stranger grabbed both of them by the neck as if to choke them. Briefly, the three struggled. Then, suddenly, the attacker dashed from the dark room, descended the stairs, and exited the back door. “He took off like a cat,” the boyfriend would later recall. It was like waking from a dream and finding yourself in a nightmare.
The shaken woman dialed 911. Her boyfriend raced downstairs to check on his 3-year-old daughter, asleep on the living-room couch. The child was unharmed.
Inspecting the scene, police quickly deduced the intruder’s route. On the first floor, they found an open window and a cut screen. They located a roll of duct tape next to the woman’s bed. One of the officers discovered that a bulb in the light fixture outside the back door had been unscrewed. “Whoever it was was really agile,” the woman later observed. “He didn’t touch anything anywhere.” Indeed, nothing was broken or knocked over. Forensic investigators looking for prints turned up nothing.
The victims described their assailant as black, probably in his thirties, and heavy-set. With a black top and blue shorts—or maybe jeans, the woman said. He had big hands, the boyfriend would later recall. But neither of them had gotten a good look at his face. It had been too dark to make out his features.
One of the first cops to arrive on the scene quickly tagged Townsend as a suspect. Officer Christie Weimar patrolled the area regularly, and she had encountered him on several occasions. He fit the bill: an African American male, weighing upwards of 200 pounds. What’s more, he was a known felon, had done time in jail for stealing money from homes in Dinkytown and elsewhere, and had been stopped several times in the past year for lesser offenses—jaywalking, loitering, driving without insurance. Weimar also seemed to recall that he was a sex offender. The man, the motive, the location—it all seemed to match. “I knew with this MO that the suspect was probably Sherman Townsend,” Weimar later noted in a police report. She broadcast a description of him over the police scanner. Within minutes, another officer found “a black male wearing a blue T-shirt [and] light-colored green shorts” a few blocks away. It was Townsend.
With a suspect in hand, police set about trying to obtain a positive ID. “The frame looked right,” the female victim would later remember, but the clothes seemed off. “I thought he had a sweatshirt on and jeans, [but] he was wearing a black cut-off sweatshirt and blue shorts.” The boyfriend, too, seemed unconvinced that the detained man was the attacker. “I began to doubt police officers,” he recalled later. “I thought to myself…maybe the cops just went and picked up the first black guy on the street.”
Officers must have been relieved when a neighbor appeared, saying he’d recently seen a man running through the area. The eyewitness, who lived across the alley, had been coming home from a local bar and was preparing to enter the rear door of his apartment building, when he was bowled over by a big black man wearing “greenish blue kind of shorts and a black T-shirt.” The fellow had knocked him into the neighbor’s Malibu station wagon, and the encounter had even left him with two broken teeth, see?
When officers opened the door of the squad and revealed their suspect, the neighbor nodded, saying he was “1,000 percent positive” that Townsend was the hurried man. When police asked the 32-year-old for his full legal name, he answered “David Anthony Jones.”