The Bulletin

Supreme Court of Virginia orders new trial for 70-year-old woman falsely implicated in attempted strawberry theft

By: - July 9, 2021 12:03 am

A bowl of strawberries. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

The Supreme Court of Virginia says a jury should decide whether a Kroger manager engaged in malicious prosecution when she had shoplifting charges brought against a 70-year-old Staunton woman falsely identified as an attempted strawberry thief.

Kroger had argued that it was a simple case of mistaken identity and during a trial last year, the local judge agreed, dismissing the charges.

But the state’s highest court disagreed, ruling Thursday that the case should have proceeded and ordering a new trial.

The dispute dates back to 2017, when a Kroger manager spotted someone in the self-checkout aisle placing unscanned strawberries into a shopping bag.

The manager, Sarah Lynch, believed she recognized the woman as Shirley Dill and, after an investigation revealed additional thefts by the shopper, she referred the case to police who took out a warrant.

But Dill, 70, was not the thief — a fact that only became clear to authorities after she was charged, arrested and had hired a defense attorney, who pointed out that the person in the surveillance video looked nothing like his client.

The Supreme Court of Virginia. (Robert Zullo/ Virginia Mercury)

Dill sued, and at trial, testimony revealed that the actual thief had scanned her shoppers card, which would have indicated the other woman was the true criminal had the store’s manager not disregarded the information as potentially erroneous.

Witnesses also testified that Lynch had interacted with Dill in at least two prior instances, including when Dill injured herself in the parking lot, which the court said could suggest “a history of animosity between the parties.”

“In the instant case, there is evidence which supports a finding of malice because Kroger and Lynch reported Dill, by name, to the police as the perpetrator of two crimes, despite video evidence that the crime was perpetrated by someone else who bore no physical resemblance to Dill, and who used her own Kroger Plus Card while perpetrating the crimes,” the justices wrote.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.