In a civil lawsuit, attorneys representing two black Richland County, South Carolina men argue there is new evidence in the case showing that the deputy who coerced them into confessing to a rape in 2015 was racially motivated.
Specifically, Richland County deputy Joseph “Joe” Clarke exchanged racist text messages with former deputy Benjamin Fields, who made national news in 2015 for violently apprehending a black female student at school, according to an affidavit filed Tuesday in the ongoing lawsuit we extensively covered in July.
The two then-teenagers Kewon English and Earl Powell are suing the Richland County Sheriff’s Department and Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott in separate lawsuits in both county and federal court.
In the latest filing, English and Powell’s attorneys argue that the text messages are evidence of Clarke’s racial bias, proving that he has credibility issues as a witness in the case. Clarke was the main investigator in the case and is accused of coercing both teens into signing confessions after interrogating them separately for hours without a parent or a lawyer present, according to the lawsuit.
Anderson, South Carolina attorneys Kyle J. White and Andrew Delaney are representing both Powell and English in the case.
The new evidence in the case comes from attorney Aleksandra Chauhan, whose casework mostly focuses on defending juveniles, according to her signed affidavit filed Tuesday.
Chauhan said she knew Clarke’s girlfriend Nikki Williams, a Richland County Sheriff’s Office employee, for five years through work. It is not clear in the affadavit if Williams and Clarke are still together.
At some point in their relationship, Williams had permission to look at Clarke’s phone and found text messages “between Clarke and former Richland County Sheriff’s Deputy Benjamin Fields, which contained horrific racist language including the word “n****r” and other racist words and phrases,” the affidavit said. “Nikki saved these texts.”
If you don’t remember Fields, here’s a video of the incident at Spring Valley High School that cost him his job.
Fields later sued the Richland County Sheriff’s Department for ruining his reputation and acting too quickly because the student in the video was black and he was white. It appears that case is still ongoing.
This summer, filmmaker Garrett Zevgetis has been working on a documentary called “Disturbing Schools,” which focuses on the incident at Spring Valley High School and the story surrounding it. Chauhan assisted with the film and helped Zevgetis gather sources, the affidavit said.
Chauhan connected Williams with the filmmaker after seeing the racist texts between the police officers. Williams then agreed to do an interview about the texts on June 13.
After seeing news coverage of the rape case in August, Chauhan contacted English and Powell’s attorney Kyle White and told him about the text messages. She also put him in touch with the filmmaker, who has copies of the texts.
According to the affidavit, Williams recanted her description of the underlying circumstances surrounding the texts, but Chauhan maintains that she “knows Nikki” and “perceived her to be telling the truth” when she initially told her about the texts.
English and Powell’s attorneys are working on obtaining copies of the text with a subpoena.
“…but the testimony of Aleksandra Chauhan alone is disturbing and compelling evidence of Clarke’s racial bias that should be considered by the Court in deciding the outcome of the summary judgment motion,” the attorneys argued in the memorandum in opposition to the sheriff department’s motion for summary judgement.
In August 2015, English and Powell were arrested in the rape of a Columbia, South Carolina woman after being individually interrogated for hours without a lawyer or a parent present, according to court records.
They both said they were coerced into signing confession documents by Clarke, according to affidavits.
Neither of the interrogations were recorded or filmed — in an investigation criminal justice expert Melvin Tucker called “shoddy, incomplete, and biased.”
English and Powell were charged on August 5, 2015 with first-degree criminal sexual assault and first-degree burglary. At the age of 16, Kewon English was jailed for 10 months from August 2015 to June 2016, then again briefly in December 2016 for violating bond provisions.
At the age of 18, Earl Powell was jailed for 13 months from August 2015 until September 2016.
Both men remained behind bars even after DNA results linked the crime to another person – Marquise Randolph – who was eventually charged in April of 2016.
Joe Clarke played a central role in this case. He was the only officer present during the alleged coerced confessions.
With no physical evidence to pin on them, the case against Powell and English relied entirely on their confessions. And with no audio or video recording of the interviews, it was their word against Clarke’s.
Who is Joe Clarke
Joseph Clarke has been employed with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department for nearly 17 years.
He was a senior investigator with the Special Victims Unit (SVU) at the time of this incident and was eventually promoted to Sergeant Supervisor of the SVU. Clarke still works at the Richland County Sheriff’s Department today as a sergeant.
Clarke has a checkered past in his 17 years with the sheriff’s department — and attorneys argue in the most recent motion that the internal affairs (IA) file provided in the lawsuit was incomplete.
According to Clarke’s internal affairs file, the veteran deputy has a “history of alleged and sustained misconduct,” the memorandum by English and Powell’s attorney states. These incidents include:
- April 2004: When Clarke responded to a report of a vehicle struck by bricks dropped from an overpass, he told the victims “he didn’t want to get his “ass sued” and therefore didn’t feel it was appropriate to go after the suspects. An internal affairs investigation found that Clarke’s investigation was insufficient and he failed to take proper action.
- July 2004: Clarke had to go to counseling after he “inappropriately tried to settle a dispute between a dog groomer and dog owner by telling the owner that if she didn’t pay what she owed, he was taking her to jail.”
- October 2006: Clarke responded to a noise complaint and even though he was told to allow the group of people to keep moving and not make any arrests, he ended up spraying the crowd with pepper spray, yelling “hey smart ass” to one of the partiers, and initiating a conflict with that man, who he arrested. In an internal affairs investigation, other responding officers said there was not a big enough threat to warrant the pepper spray. Clarke was placed on 30 days probation for improper use of force and false arrest.
- February 2008: Clarke was investigated after he went to a 16-year-old’s home “without reasonable suspicion, to ask if he knew anything about recent burglaries in the neighborhood.”
- December 2008: Clarke was investigated after he showed up at a woman’s home while off duty, without a warrant, and forced the woman to hand over her dog.
- February 2017: Clarke was investigated after he made fun of an animal cruelty consultant’s credentials while working on an animal abuse case. After the woman filed a complaint, Clarke sent her a Facebook message that said “really… a formal complaint with IA?”
The IA file didn’t mention the alleged racist text messages. Attorneys for the plaintiffs also found that Fields and Clarke were codefendents in a 2015 case alleging false arrest and excessive force.
In the 2005 case, the court found ““evidence from which a jury could conclude that misstatements and omissions occurred,” and that the deputies made an illegal arrest.
Clarke was never disciplined for this case, and his IA file didn’t mention it.
“Accordingly, this calls into question the completeness of Clarke’s internal affairs file, and is strong evidence of negligence and gross negligence in the supervision of Clarke by the (the sheriff’s office),” attorneys for English and Powell wrote in Tuesday’s filing.
According to his deposition, Clarke maintains that he did no wrong in the 2015 case. Asked if he was sorry that English and Powell were charged and jailed for the crime, Clarke said he wasn’t sorry.
“That’s what I do. If I was a cookie maker, I’d make cookies, I put bad guys in jail,” Clarke told attorneys. “They broke the law multiple times.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Mandy Matney is the news director at FITSNews. She’s an award-winning journalist from Kansas who has worked for newspapers in Missouri, Illinois, and South Carolina before making the switch to FITS. She currently lives on Hilton Head Island where she enjoys beach life. Want to contact Mandy? Send your story ideas, comments, suggestions and tips to [email protected].
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