Body Cameras Don’t Lie: The Prosecutor Who Caught the Crooked Cop

Christina Pumphrey was just doing her job when others weren’t doing theirs. Because of her, a corrupt cop in Jackson County, Florida, is no longer arresting innocent people and is off the streets. Now Pumphrey doesn’t have a job either and has filed a lawsuit against the state attorney’s office, but her moral compass has never been stronger.

After working as an attorney for the state government for almost 15 years, Pumphrey joined the State Attorney’s Office in early May 2018. Assigned to simple drug possession cases, Pumphrey’s work became anything but simple when she started hearing things about Jackson County Deputy Zachary Wester.

“You can’t trust him,” she was cautioned by assistant public defenders, who added, “You’ve got to watch him. Our clients are complaining about him.” These warnings led her to look more closely at his traffic stops and arrests. This involved reading his reports and pulling his body camera videos.

Following her gut, Pumphrey realized something wasn’t quite right. For one thing, the video footage didn’t always fit with Wester’s written accounts. A June traffic stop raised her suspicions that Wester was planting evidence. In this case, the woman who was arrested didn’t have a criminal record – unlike the other people Wester had arrested during his two years at the Sheriff’s Office. Pumphrey dropped the charges, but this lady’s permament record now shows an arrest for meth.

Pumphrey noticed a pattern in Wester’s behavior. He appeared to target poor, white residents with criminal histories. In other words, he picked a vulnerable population who not only wouldn’t have the wherewithal to fight back, but who would be less likely to be believed.

Soon after, Pumphrey approached her supervisor, armed with some of these suspicious cases. After an assistant public defender also expressed doubt about Wester, the supervisor contacted the Sheriff’s Office. Pumphrey ended up talking with Lt. Mike Hodges, who was overseeing the internal affairs investigation. She gave him several videos around July 24. August 1, Hodges called Pumphrey to tell her that Wester was on administrative leave and that there was enough evidence against Wester.

Despite this, Pumphrey persisted. She wanted to continue searching through the videos and finish the work she had started. It also bothered her that there were innocent people being prosecuted. Mid-to-late August is when she found the smoking gun: A body-cam video from a traffic stop in February which clearly shows a baggie in Wester’s clenched hand before his search was conducted. The driver was arrested with possession of meth, but it was the cop who should have been arrested instead.

Pumphrey gave the video to investigators in late August. Wester was fired soon after, on September 10. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is conducting its own investigation, and as of late September, no charges had been filed. But a whopping 119 cases involving Wester have been dropped.

Even though Pumphrey loved her job, she resigned. “I don’t want to work in an environment that allows this to happen, she told the Tallahassee Democrat. “I felt that instead of doing what I would call the right thing, there were steps to cover up the office’s involvement. And not necessarily the office’s malicious involvement, but the fact that the office hadn’t been paying attention and let this happen.”

Naturally, she was uncomfortable prosecuting cases that may have been tainted by Wester. She also knew that she wouldn’t have had much of a future in the office, particularly one that valued discretion. “One of the constant repetitive comments was, ‘We don’t talk to anybody, keep it in the office,’” she told the paper. “What I took it to mean was everybody keeps their mouth shut and the public doesn’t find out.”

Pumphrey hired an attorney who calls her a hero to folks who shouldn’t have been charged. At least one notice of intent to sue the Sheriff’s Department has been filed. A whistleblower retaliation complaint with the Florida Commission on Human Relations has also been submitted against State Attorney Glenn Hess. In the complaint, Pumphrey asserts that she was ostracized and ignored after raising red flags about Wester. It also states that her superiors told her that things were blowing up, yelled at her for finding the evidence, and told her she was messing up investigations by dismissing cases. Hess, of course, disputes Pumphrey’s account.

Pumphrey believes that more than one person is at fault for what happened. Wester may have been the instigator, but checks and balances failed along the way. Well aware that she didn’t follow direct orders when told not to dismiss cases, she told that “an ethical and moral obligation is more weighty and binding than a supervisor’s direction.” Indeed, she stayed true to her professional calling: “It got to the point where my thought process was, if I leave these cases open, if I don’t dismiss these cases, if I keep my mouth shut, I’m as bad as he is,” Pumphrey said.