When Marvin Washington Jr. was arrested last month for allegedly spitting into a customer's sweet tea at a McDonald’s in Simpsonville, S.C., the incident made news around the globe. When the charges were dismissed a few weeks later? The media barely paid it any attention.
Since then, Marvin Washington, 19, has embarked on a campaign to clear his name and convince the world that he is not the person behind the initial headlines. The college freshman says he aims to get a graduate degree in healthcare and become a nurse practitioner. And he fears the incident will haunt him forever, or scuttle his job chances if a future employer Googles his name and finds the original story.
"I worry that people will only remember the first part -- that I got arrested. They probably won’t care that the case got dropped, they will probably assume I did it. And I want to tell them, 'I didn’t do that, I’m not that type of person.' I want them to know, 'I’m a good young man' and that these allegations were false," he told the Los Angeles Times.
Washington made headlines last month when two Greenville County sheriff's deputies showed up at his community college in early April and took him out of class. Washington said he had no idea what was going on.
Washington said that, when he was brought to sheriff's headquarters and heard the claims -- that surveillance video had allegedly caught him leaning over a customer's sweet tea order as if he was spitting into it -- he actually breathed a sigh of relief.
"I knew I didn't do it," he said. "I knew there must be some kind of mistake."
According to law enforcement, a mother and daughter had picked up iced teas on a visit to the drive-through at the McDonald's on Main Street in Simpsonville in early April. But the drinks weren't sweet enough, so they returned them. The new drinks still weren't sweet enough, but the pair decided they'd just add sugar at home. When they took the lids off, they said, they found floating clumps of phlegm. That's when they called law enforcement.
As the case moved forward -- with media attention, court appearances and the felony charge of malicious tampering with food that could carry up to 20 years in prison -- Washington began growing more anxious.
"When I heard that there was a 20-year sentence, I was really scared. But I was also confident that I didn’t do anything," he said.
He was represented by Beattie Ashmore, a former federal prosecutor turned private defense attorney, who said he still wonders why such a serious charge was brought in a case that lacked evidence.
Ashmore said law enforcement did not take steps to preserve the tea or the cups, and did not even pursue DNA tests. Moreover, the surveillance video does not show Washington spitting into the tea, he said.
"It shows him leaning down over the tea, yes -- but that was to get to the ice maker," he said. "It took the judge all of 10 seconds to dismiss it for lack of evidence."
A spokeswoman for the Greenville Sheriff's Department conceded Tuesday that DNA tests would have been helpful. The deputies did not pursue tests because so much time had passed, all the ice in the tea had melted and the suspicious material initially seen on top was no longer visible, Master Deputy Laura Campbell told The Times.
Ashmore, Washington's attorney, said the case was an example of the media rushing to judgment. He also criticized the media for so frequently covering the first part of a case, but not the additional details or final outcome. The attorney said he was not aware of any legal recourse available to Washington.
The McDonald's manager was also in Washington's corner, offering Washington his job back and issuing the following statement to The Times:
"Marvin has been a very good employee over the past year and I have been fully supportive of him before, during and after the alleged incident. He is a fine young man with a bright future. For Marvin and his family, I am very pleased that the case was dismissed."
As for Washington, he has decided not to return to the McDonald's. "It was just too much," he said.
Instead, he is taking the summer off to relax a bit after his first full year of community college. "I was a full-time student and I was working 25 hours a week. I was always busy. It was school to work, homework, go to sleep. Repeat."
Both Washington and his parents are tired of crossing paths with people who still believe the teenager is guilty.
"It was like a heavy burden just came off of me when I heard that the charges were dismissed," the elder Washington said. "But he’s going to have to rebuild his character now. The whole family will.”
Washington Sr. is a machinist, and his wife works in the radiology department at a local hospital. He said the couple worked hard to make sure their kids maintained their grades, and were involved in positive activities to keep them away from trouble.
He ticks off a lists of his son's accomplishments. Dean's list in college. Good grades in high school. A celebrated high school sports career. Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts.
"Just the other day, someone came up to me and said, 'If that was my son, I’d do so-and-so to him'" -- suggesting, somehow, that the Washingtons weren't as strict as they should be with their son and that's why he got into trouble with the law. "And I was like ‘Whoa! It didn’t happen that way.'"
"I hope this won't hurt him in the long run," the father said.