Stephanie Mohr always wanted to be a police officer. But she was forced to change her plans, after a charge of police brutality sent her to a West Virginia prison for 8½ years. As a newly free woman, Mohr insisted on her innocence in an interview with Washington, D.C., television station WTTG, and hopes to one day buy a home close to her son.
In the early 1990s, Mohr became the first female police officer in the K-9 unit of the Prince George's County Police Department in Maryland. "I knew that I had to work harder than the average male to make my way, but I accepted that and I welcomed that," Mohr told the Fox affiliate.
After a string of burglaries in Takoma Park, the police set up surveillance and spotted two men on the roof of a store. Mohr and her partner were called in for backup. They ordered the men to get on the ground and show their hands.
But Mohr claims that one of the men's body movements suggested that he was about to flee. She said that in following protocol she released her dog, Valk, for a "bite and hold" move, to immobilize the man until he could be handcuffed. The dog, as trained, bit into the man's calf, tearing his muscle.
The man, Ricardo Mendez, a homeless undocumented immigrant, didn't file a complaint, and Mohr's commanders signed off on the report. Mendez was ultimately convicted of selling crack cocaine and was deported to El Salvador. The other suspect, Herrera Cruz, pled guilty and was deported to Mexico.
"As for me, I was relieved to get two dangerous drug dealers off our streets," Mohr wrote after her first two years in jail, in a mailer asking for donations to fund her appeal.
But Mohr's version of how events played out didn't match the account of several witnesses. The officer who originally called for assistance, Sgt. Dennis Bonn, claims that the two men cooperated fully, climbing down from the roof with their hands in the air, and were peacefully standing there when the dog was released.
Five years later, and a day before the statute of limitations expired, Mohr was charged with harming Mendez by "acting under color of law to willfully deprive him of his right to be free from the use of unreasonable force," as well as one charge of conspiracy.
The jury acquitted Mohr on the second charge, but was hung on the first. When she was tried again, she was found guilty, and under then-mandatory sentencing laws, was sentenced to prison for 10 years. There has been no parole in the federal system since the mid-1980s, and convicted individuals must serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.
At the time of her sentence, she thought of her young son. "I'm trying to imagine leaving him for 10 years, how I'm going to do that," she told the TV station, "how he is going to survive and what impact this will have on my family and my friends."
In the ensuing years, Mohr's son traveled the 5½ hours to West Virginia federal prison every two weeks, and then once a month, to visit his mother.
Mohr believes politics had a role in her conviction. The U.S. Department of Justice was looking to prosecute cases in which minorities suffered civil rights abuses, she claims. A white officer, who could be found guilty of police brutality against a Hispanic immigrant, fit the bill.
"The federal government was desperate to make a case against a Prince George's County Police officer," Mohr says. "After years and years of investigating, the only person they were able to indict and try was me."
Although the outcome of the case was a personal tragedy for Mohr, prosecutors argue that justice was served. "We need to understand the difficult circumstances that police officers face," the federal prosecutor told WTTG. "At the same time, we have to understand that a crime is a crime and nobody, especially the people who enforce the law, can be above the law."
"I did what I was told to do," Mohr still contends. "I did what I was trained to do. I did what I was expected to do."
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