The long ordeal of Joshua Spriestersbach, a homeless man in Hawaii, began on May 11, 2017, when a Honolulu police officer woke him up and arrested him. He had fallen asleep while waiting in line to enter a shelter for food, but was instead sent to a prison on Oahu for a crime he had not committed, according to a petition that his attorney filed this week to request his release. file.
The police officer thought Mr Spriestersbach, now 50, looked like Thomas Castleberry, who was wanted on a 2006 drug charge, according to Mr Spriestersbach’s lawyer.
Mr. Spriesterbach, who believed he had been arrested for violating Honolulu’s ban on sitting or lying on sidewalks, had no ID on him at the time, and he insisted that he was not Mr. Castleberry and that he did not even know the man, according to the petition. But the authorities did not believe him.
“I don’t understand the allegations,” he would later tell a psychiatrist, the petition said. “I just fell asleep.”
This misunderstanding cost Mr. Spriestersbach, whose family says he has schizophrenia, more than two and a half years of his life. The situation was only straightened out after a few months after someone at the mental hospital he was sent to verified that he was not Mr. Castleberry, according to his attorney, Jennifer Brown, who works for the Hawaii Innocence Project. The organization took up Mr Spriestersbach’s case after his family reached out to him last summer.
Ms Brown described the years of ordeal in the petition as a “gross miscarriage of justice”. She and the co-director of the organization, Kenneth Lawson, said state and city authorities had repeatedly let Mr. Spriestersbach down.
First, said Mr. Lawson, the Honolulu Police Department compared Mr. Spriestersbach not with that of Mr. Castleberry, which were already in the police database. So the police sent Mr. Spriestersbach to jail, where he remained for a few months until state authorities transferred him to Hawaii State Mental Health Hospital, according to the petition and to Mr. Lawson.
Then, said Mr. Lawson, the public defenders of Mr. Spriestersbach deserted him. He was represented by a series of lawyers who did not believe him when he said he was not Mr Castleberry. In fact, he told the public defenders that he was not on Oahu at the time Mr. Castleberry would have committed his crimes, Mr. Lawson. He added that Mr. Castleberry had been in an Alaska prison the entire time Mr. Spriestersbach was accused of Mr. Castleberry’s Crimes. (Mr. Castleberry, who is 49, remains incarcerated in Alaska.)
A Honolulu Police Department spokeswoman said Thursday that the department is “investigating the circumstances of Mr Spriestersbach’s arrest.” The hospital did not respond to emails or phone calls on Thursday requesting comment.
Hawaii’s Office of the Public Defender also did not respond to emails and phone calls on Thursday seeking comment.
At the hospital, Mr Spriestersbach protested when he was forced to attend group sessions for drug users, and workers responded by giving him antipsychotic drugs that made him drool and have trouble walking, according to the petition and from his sister Vedanta Griffith.
“The more Mr. Spriestersbach expressed his innocence by claiming he is not Mr. Castleberry,” the petition said, “the more he was declared delusional and psychotic.”
All but one of the court-ordered psychiatrists failed to see that Mr. Spriestersbach was not lying about his identity, Mr. Lawson said. He had not yet been brought to trial because the psychiatrists, sent by judges, had not determined that he was fit to stand trial.
Things started to change in November 2019, when one of his psychiatrists got his birth certificate and realized that Mr Spriestersbach was the person he said he was, according to the petition. But the official record is sloppy about what happened between then and its January 2020 release, Mr. Lawson.
From the hospital discharge file, which Mr. Spriestersbach has provided to NewsMadura, it appears that the court-ordered psychiatrist reported her findings to the hospital’s attorney and his attorney.
The hospital’s attorney called the Honolulu Police Department, and a detective discovered the mix-up after taking Mr. Spriestersbach’s fingerprints and photo, according to the file. mr. Spriestersbach was quietly released.
“Nobody said anything about, ‘We made a mistake. We need to fix this,'” said Mr. Lawson. “Nothing.”
Mr Spriestersbach’s case attracted a lot of attention this week after Ms Brown filed Monday’s petition with the state’s First Circuit Court to clear his name and vacate his 2017 arrest.
Representatives from the Honolulu Attorney General’s Office and the state’s attorney general said on Wednesday that their offices are investigating the Innocence Project’s allegations.
“The allegations in the petition are of concern to us,” said Matt Dvonch, the prosecutor’s special counsel.
Mr Spriestersbach is still at the center of what his sister described in an interview on Thursday as a “confused wasp’s nest.” Court records in Hawaii show that Mr. Spriestersbach is known by the alias Thomas Castleberry, and that Mr. Castleberry still has an pending arrest warrant in the state. Mr Spriestersbach is terrified, Ms Griffith said, that a police officer anywhere in the country could arrest him and extradite him to the islands.
Ms. Griffith said he was ashamed of what had happened to him in Hawaii, noting that he declined to comment on his situation. He moved to Hawaii with her family in 2003, and she lost track of him after moving back to the mainland. He reunited with his sister after being released from a homeless shelter in January 2020, where he called his family.
Ms. Griffith tearfully recalled the first time she saw her brother at the airport, after more than ten years apart.
“His shirt was wet from drooling and he shuffled his feet,” she said. “He was just so medicinal.”
She took him to her home in Vermont, she said, where she and her husband cook meals for him every day. Mr. Spriestersbach takes less medication these days and is much better, Mrs. Griffith said, but he doesn’t feel safe.
“He goes out and walks around the property,” she said, “but he doesn’t want to leave because he’s afraid there could be police officers everywhere we go.”
Mr Spriestersbach spends his days learning to play a bass guitar and watching the television series ‘The Walking Dead,’ said Ms Griffith. She said he would always have a home with her family so he never had to be homeless again.
“He’s the kindest, gentlest soul, and he wouldn’t hurt anyone,” she said. “They can’t do anything to give him those years back.”
Susan C. Beachy research contributed.