The story had all the hallmarks of a potboiler for the internet age — race, police misconduct, violence against women, Twitter, police cameras.
A black North Texas woman accused a white law enforcement officer of sexually assaulting her during an arrest. She hired a civil rights attorney to represent her, and he shared her claim with nationally known civil rights activist and columnist Shaun King, who repeated the story on Twitter. It went viral.
But it wasn't true.
In a post that has since been deleted, King relayed to his Twitter followers that a Texas Department of Public Safety officer sexually assaulted Sherita Dixon-Cole of Grapevine early Sunday after pulling her over for suspicion of driving while intoxicated in Waxahatchie. King told his audience that Cole’s attorney, Lee Merritt, said the state trooper assaulted her and threatened to kill her fiance.
On Tuesday, DPS released nearly two hours of camera footage that debunked the claim. It shows Officer Daniel Hubbard politely performing a field sobriety test, arresting Dixon-Cole and giving her a breath test. No threats. No assault.
On Wednesday, Merritt apologized for passing on the story. Hubbard appeared "to comport himself professionally during the duration of the traffic stop and arrest," according to Merritt.
DPS started to investigate the claim once King tweeted the accusations. King has a substantial social media following, and through a campaign of tweets, he helped authorities identify and arrest some of the white men seen kicking and beating a black man at a riot Charlottesville, Virginia, last year.
Merritt is a Philadelphia-based attorney who has handled prominent civil rights cases in North Texas. Most recently, he worked for Jacqueline Craig, a black woman whose son was assaulted by a white neighbor, whom witnesses said grabbed the 8-year-old by the neck and forced to pick up trash. Craig called Fort Worth police, but the officer who responded ignored her complaint and arrested her.
The arrest was caught on a video, which also went viral. Craig was eventually released, but her neighbor, Itamar Vardi, was convicted of misdemeanor assault earlier this year.
In Cole's case, Merritt released a statement Wednesday, saying, “The body camera footage released directly conflicts with the accounts reported to my office. ... This office regularly receives hundreds of claims of abuse from across the nation and we are obligated to filter these messages thoroughly before relaying them to our powerful allies.”
Press Release concerning released body-cam footage by Texas DPS pic.twitter.com/ExpbgmJEH5— S. Lee Merritt, Esq. (@MeritLaw) May 23, 2018
Merritt and King didn't respond to the Observer's efforts to contact them. The Dallas Morning News reported that the Ellis County district attorney is still investigating the case and no decision has been made whether to file additional charges against Dixon-Cole.
King wrote in a post on Medium that Dixon-Cole went from being a victim to being the "victimizer."
"She victimized the man she falsely accused and she victimized those who stood up for her? — believing that she had experienced the worst crimes," he wrote. "Thankfully, she does not represent anyone but herself. She does not represent actual victims of sex crimes. She does not represent actual victims of police brutality."
Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.