What we think: Misplaced zeal

There was a rare moment of reason this week in the case against a 14-year-old accused of child abduction when Orange Circuit Judge Thomas Turner released the boy from home confinement.

In an incident that has drawn international notoriety, Edwin McFarlane was arrested by Orange County Sheriff's Office deputies on June 10 after he led a 3-year-old girl out of a west Orange Burlington Coat Factory store into the parking lot. The child was quickly reunited with her mother.

What really seems to have gone missing that day were the better judgment and discretion of two local law-enforcement agencies.

Edwin, shopping with his mother, says he saw the child standing alone in the store and was trying to take her to her mother, whom he mistakenly thought was in a group of three women who had walked out. The girl's mother, still in the store, went outside and retrieved her after she was told Edwin had taken her.

The Sheriff's Office says that because Edwin lacked "permission from the victim's mother to remove the victim from the store," he was charged with false imprisonment — a felony. That's quite a stretch.

There have been big holes in logic in this case from the get-go. Why would someone intent on abducting a child do it on a shopping trip with his own mother? Why would he wait with the child until her mother came to claim her? Why would he go back in the store and resume shopping, rather than flee the scene?

If the offices of Sheriff Jerry Demings or State Attorney Lawson Lamar are holding on to more incriminating evidence against Edwin, they need to produce it. In the absence of such evidence, the zealousness with which both offices have pursued this case is striking, and troubling.

Sheriff's detectives slapped handcuffs on Edwin at the scene and paraded him before TV cameras. He was interrogated at the station in two sessions lasting more than an hour and a half total.

And in court Thursday, a prosecutor argued against lifting Edwin's home confinement. She presented his disciplinary record from school, after details about it had been leaked to reporters ahead of the hearing, along with allegations that Edwin had been deceptive with investigators.

The prosecutor said the record included 18 disciplinary referrals, including three for what the prosecutor called sexually related incidents. While an attorney for Edwin disputed that characterization, it's clear that he's no angel.

But in running into trouble at school, Edwin has a lot of company among teenage boys. And his school disciplinary record does not make up for the lack of evidence that he tried to abduct a child. In fact, the prosecutor conceded that his school record "is probably not relevant to the charges."

State law lets the heads of law-enforcement agencies admit mistakes in arrests and expunge the record, but Mr. Demings insists his deputies did nothing wrong in the case of Edwin. The sheriff has his story, and he's sticking to it.

Meanwhile, Mr. Demings says it's now up to Mr. Lamar's office whether to go through with charges against the boy. That decision could come next week.

By digging in their heels on this case, neither official looks tough on crime. Both just look like they are too stubborn to concede when they've overreached, or fouled up. That appearance could undercut the public's faith in their offices.

Barring more incriminating evidence against Edwin — and it's hard to believe prosecutors wouldn't have leaked it by now — Mr. Demings and Mr. Lamar should drop this case, and focus on serious threats to public safety.

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