The woman who says she was falsely accused of killing a retired nurse in the parking lot of a shopping mall in Rolling Hills Estates has won an unusual legal ruling in federal court that may allow a wrongful arrest lawsuit to begin even though the murder case is unresolved.
U.S. District Court Judge R. Gary Klausner lifted a stay that had delayed the lawsuit while the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department investigates the May 3, 2018 stabbing murder of retired nurse Susan Leeds.
Cherie Townsend, who was booked on suspicion of murder about two weeks after the killing, sued LA County and its Sheriff's Department after prosecutors declined to charge her, though the lawsuit was almost immediately placed on hold to allow Sheriff's detectives time to complete the homicide investigation.
"This case shall be reinstated to the Court's active caseload and the parties may resume discovery and other pretrial activities," the court said late last month in a summary of the judge's action, which became final this week.
Civil courts almost always defer to law enforcement when lawsuits are connected with open criminal investigations, and in this case, lawyers for LA County sought to prevent Townsend from using the pretrial discovery process to learn what information in homicide detectives' files had led to her arrest.
"It's a major decision," said Beverly Hills attorney Pat Harris, who works as both a defense attorney in criminal court and a plaintiffs' lawyer in civil court.
"What this judge is ruling is, he is saying, 'Look, law enforcement: You've had an opportunity to investigate this. You arrested her. You released her. You then turned around and have had a year to go out and find any evidence against her. You didn't. Well, we're not going to allow this to drag on forever.'"
Harris said the case is even more unusual because the plaintiff in the civil case is herself the named suspect in the criminal case.
"This judge has opened up a major, major issue here that will have long term ramifications," and Harris expects LA County lawyers would appeal the decision.
Leeds, 66, was attacked as she sat in the driver's seat of her Mercedes SUV in the parking structure of the Promenade on the Peninsula Shopping Center. Sheriff's officials initially characterized the attack as a violent robbery. Fuzzy security video showed a car similar to Townsend's leaving the parking structure around the time of the murder.
Townsend told NBCLA's I-Team last year she happened to be at the mall that day and accidentally dropped her cellphone somewhere near the crime scene. Townsend said she had nothing to do with the murder.
"I still have this dark cloud over my head because from the moment I was released [from jail] they still went on TV and said, 'We think we have the right person," Townsend said during an interview.
LA County Sheriff's officials said this week detectives continue to make significant progress in the Leeds investigation but said it's too soon to discuss those findings in public. No other arrests have been made in the case to date, and the officials said Townsend remains a suspect.
The LA County Counsel's Office, which argued to keep Townsend's lawsuit on hold, declined to address the judge's decision.
"Because this is a matter of ongoing litigation, the County has no comment at this time," a spokesperson said in an email.