In the fall of 2007, Pete Spaziano, a Central Florida contractor, hired a woman to paint a house in Orlando, Florida. After the job was completed, the woman became involved in a payment dispute and in retaliation, splashed paint throughout the home, causing about $10,000 in damage.
Spaziano had met the woman, whom he knew as “Marlene” only a few times and hired her because he had too much work to finish himself before the holidays.
After the crime, in December 2007, Spaziano gave Orlando police the cell phone number of the woman and Officer Jose Varela dialed it. A woman who identified herself as “Marlene” admitted doing the damage and then hung up.
Sometime after the crime, the owner of the home spotted a black man driving slowly past the residence in a green pickup truck. The woman took down the license plate number and called police.
Varela looked up the plate and found it was registered to a man with the last name of Joseph. A check of driver’s license records turned up a 27-year-old woman named Malenne Joseph. Varela showed a copy of the driver’s license photo to the homeowner and her sister. Both said Joseph was the woman who had been hired to paint the house. Defense lawyers would later show that that Joseph’s husband has a different last name and had a pickup truck, but it was red.
Ultimately, in June 2010, Joseph was charged with felony criminal mischief and went on trial that month. Spaziano came to court and identified Joseph, as did the homeowner and her sister. Varela testified about the telephonic “confession.”
Joseph worked two jobs, at a Burger King and in a nursing facility, never painted for a living, but was not working on the date of the crime and so was unable to establish a solid alibi.
A jury quickly convicted her.
After the trial and before sentencing, Joseph’s lawyers learned the cell phone number actually belonged to a woman named “Merline.” They subpoenaed phone records and found a record of the call by Varela to the number as well as several exchanges prior to the crime with Spaziano.
When Spaziano learned that Joseph was only 5 feet, 2 inches tall, he recanted his in-court identification. He remembered the woman he hired was taller than him and he was 5 feet six inches tall. He lamented that if Joseph had been asked to stand up in court, he would have realized immediately that she was not the right person.
A motion for new trial was filed in August, 2010, and on September 15, 2010, the Orange Circuit Judge Walter Kaminski set aside the conviction and Joseph was released after spending 90 days in jail. On October 7, 2010, the charges were dismissed.
The true perpetrator was never prosecuted—the statute of limitations had expired.
– Maurice Possley