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Tevlin: When the legal system takes too long to make the right call

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN
  • Star Tribune
  • December 3, 2012 - 8:04 PM

"The State of Minnesota hereby dismisses the above-captioned case."

Those words gave a Minneapolis woman her life back after 11 months in fear that she might go to jail.

As of last Monday, the woman charged in the case, Nancy Fletcher, can go back to her life, cleared and vindicated. But she's still traumatized, first by a man she believes drugged her in a bar, then by a system that didn't believe her.

I first wrote about this travesty back in September. Fletcher and some friends (40-something preschool teachers and waitresses, all with clean records) stopped at a Minneapolis bar. A stranger brought beers for two of the women, including Fletcher, who drank hers. The other woman gave her beer to a male friend, Rich Barlow.

Within 30 minutes, Fletcher and Barlow were stumbling drunk. Their friends couldn't understand how they had gotten so inebriated so quickly. But at one point, the stranger tried to escort Fletcher to the back of the bar.

Instead, the friends took Fletcher and Barlow to her house and put them to bed. The two had not been arguing or fighting. Thirteen minutes later, Fletcher called 911. She had stabbed her friend several times. Neither of them knew why, and neither could remember anything from that night.

One of the first questions a detective asked Barlow in the hospital was: "Did anyone buy you guys drinks?"

The detective suspected what everyone else did: Fletcher and Barlow had been given Rohypnol, or "roofies," a sedative that causes amnesia, also called "the date rape drug."

Rohypnol usually causes victims to pass out. But occasionally, it creates a paradoxical effect and makes the person suddenly aggressive.

Yet, police never went after the man in the bar, though Fletcher had his name. They took a blood sample from Fletcher, but discarded it. When she went back to get tested for the drug a day later, the hospital refused, saying it would be out of her system.

Barlow also believed he and Fletcher were drugged, and in a rare turn, he offered to be a character witness for her in the case, calling her "one of the sweetest and kindest people you'd want to know."

Even so, Hennepin County went after Fletcher with a vengeance. Prosecutor Hans Larson and Judge Daniel Mabley fought every attempt by attorney Brian Karalus to exonerate his client. They fought a request for a psychiatric evaluation (the court-appointed psychologist agreed Fletcher didn't know what she was doing). They fought his attempts to bring in expert witnesses and to have a bifurcated trial, which would assess Fletcher's temporary mental defect separately.

It was only after Karalus successfully got Mabley removed from the case over a potential conflict of interest that it quietly died away. On the eve of the trial.

"It's the weirdest case I've ever had," said Karalus.

Karalus discovered by happenstance that Mabley's son was a friend of Barlow and Fletcher. So Karalus put the judge's son on Fletcher's character witness list. Even so, Mabley refused to recuse himself, so Karalus took it to the chief judge, who removed Mabley from the case, citing the appearance of a conflict of interest.

In his request, Karalus argued Mabley had a bias: "Judge Mabley blew up and became heated in chambers" when the defense requested a psych evaluation.

"He was essentially saying because he didn't believe her, she shouldn't have a right to a trial because it cost too much money," said Karalus. "What's really odd is that they usually don't spend so much time fighting every single pretrial motion. I thought they would dismiss it as soon as the evaluation from the court's own psychiatrist came back in [Fletcher's] favor."

A spokesman for the judge said he was not allowed to comment on this case.

"This is a case of a 44-year old woman with no prior record," said Karalus. "There was no motive. Their stories were consistent and never changed. How many red flags did they need?"

Mike Freeman, Hennepin County attorney, sounded almost apologetic Monday. "At the time we charged, the story didn't sound very valid," he said. "Subsequently, we did more investigation and thought maybe this did occur. We're not above making a mistake. Sometimes we swallow our pride and dismiss."

When Fletcher heard the case was over, "I was on cloud nine," she said. "I'm so happy justice was served. I know the police were doing their jobs, and they may have saved Rich's life. But they need to know people are being drugged and they need to take them to the hospital instead of jail."

Eleven months later, Fletcher is free. But she lives with the belief there is still a guy out there, drugging women in bars.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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