Man Was Held for More Than 2 Years Over Mistaken Identity, His Lawyer Says
Joshua Sprestersbach, a homeless man in Hawaii, began on May 11, 2017, when a police officer in Honolulu woke him up and arrested him. He had fallen asleep while queuing to enter a shelter for food, but, instead, was sent to an Oahu jail for a crime he did not commit, according to a petition his lawyer filed this week seeking to clear his record.
The officer believed Mr Sprestersbach, now 50, looked like Thomas Castleberry, who was wanted on charges stemming from a drug case in 2006, according to Mr Sprestersbach’s lawyer.
Mr Spresterbach, who believed he was arrested because he violated Honolulu’s ban on sitting or lying on sidewalks, was not wearing ID 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 accusations,” he later told a psychiatrist, according to the petition. “I just fell asleep.”
This misunderstanding cost Mr. Sprestersbach, whose family says he has schizophrenia, more than two and a half years of his life. The situation was only resolved after someone from the mental hospital he was sent to after a few months verified that he was not Mr Castleberry, according to his lawyer, Jennifer Brown, who works for the Hawaii Innocence Project. The organization took on Mr Sprestersbach’s case after his family contacted him last summer.
Ms Brown described the ordeal of several years in the petition as a “serious miscarriage of justice.” She and the organization’s co-director Kenneth Lawson said state and city authorities have repeatedly failed Mr Sprestersbach.
First, Mr. Lawson said, the Honolulu Police Department did not compare Mr. Sprestersbach’s fingerprints and photograph with those of Mr. Castleberry, which were already in the police database. Police therefore sent Mr. Sprestersbach to jail, where he remained for a few months until state authorities transferred him to Hawaii State Hospital for mental health care, according to the petition. and Mr. Lawson.
Then, Mr Lawson said, Mr Sprestersbach’s public defenders failed him. He was represented by a series of lawyers who disbelieved him when he said he was not Mr. Castleberry. In fact, he told public defenders he was not in Oahu when Mr. Castleberry allegedly committed his crimes, Mr. Lawson said. He added that Mr. Castleberry had been in an Alaskan correctional facility the entire time Mr. Sprestersbach was charged with Mr. Castleberry’s crimes. (Mr. Castleberry, 49, remains in Alaska.)
A spokeswoman for the Honolulu Police Department said Thursday that the department “is reviewing the circumstances of Mr. Sprestersbach’s arrest.” The hospital did not respond to emails or phone calls Thursday asking for comment.
The Hawaii Public Defender’s Office also did not respond to emails and phone calls Thursday seeking comment.
At the hospital, Mr Sprestersbach protested when he was forced to attend group sessions for drug addicts, and employees responded by giving him antipsychotic drugs that made him drool and had difficulty walking, according to the petition and to Vedanta Griffith, his sister.
“The more Mr. Sprestersbach snapped his innocence by asserting that he was not Mr. Castleberry,” the petition read, “the more he was declared delusional and psychotic”.
All but one of his psychiatrists failed to acknowledge that Mr Sprestersbach was not lying about his identity, Mr Lawson said. He had not yet been tried because psychiatrists, sent by the court judges, had not determined that he was fit to stand trial.
Things started to change in November 2019, when one of his psychiatrists obtained his birth certificate and realized that Mr Sprestersbach was who he claimed to be, according to the petition. But the official record is uneven on what happened between that date and its January 2020 release, Lawson said.
The hospital discharge record, which Mr Sprestersbach’s sister provided to the New York Times, shows that the court-appointed psychiatrist reported his finding to the hospital’s lawyer and his public defender.
The hospital attorney called Honolulu Police and a detective discovered the confusion after he took Mr. Sprestersbach’s fingerprints and photograph, according to the file. Mr. Sprestersbach was quietly released.
“Nobody said anything about ‘We made a mistake. We have to fix this problem, ”Lawson said. “Nothing.”
Mr Sprestersbach’s case gained wide attention this week after Ms Brown filed the motion on Monday in the state’s First Circuit Court to clear his name and overturn his 2017 arrest.
Representatives from the Honolulu prosecutor’s office and the state prosecutor’s office said Wednesday their offices were investigating the charges of Project Innocence.
“The allegations in the petition concern us,” said Matt Dvonch, special counsel for the prosecutor.
Mr Sprestersbach is still at the center of what his sister described in an interview on Thursday as a ‘tangled hornet’s nest’. Hawaii court records indicate that Mr. Sprestersbach is known by the pseudonym Thomas Castleberry, and that Mr. Castleberry still has an outstanding arrest warrant in the state. Mr Sprestersbach is terrified, Ms Griffith said, that a police officer anywhere in the country could detain him and extradite him to the islands.
Ms Griffith said he was embarrassed by what had happened to him in Hawaii, noting that he had declined to comment on his situation. He moved to Hawaii with his family in 2003, and she lost track of him after returning to the mainland. He was reunited with his sister after being released in January 2020 at a homeless shelter, where he called his family.
Ms Griffith recalled in tears the first time she saw her brother at the airport, after more than a decade of being apart.
“His shirt was wet with drool and he was dragging his feet,” she said. “He was so medicated.”
She brought him to her home in Vermont, she said, where she and her husband cook meals for him every day. Mr Sprestersbach is taking less medication these days and is doing a lot better, Ms Griffith said, but he doesn’t feel safe.
“He comes out and walks around the property,” she said, “but he doesn’t want to leave because he’s afraid that everywhere we go there might be police officers. “
Mr. Sprestersbach spends his days learning to play bass guitar and watching the television series “The Walking Dead”, Ms. Griffith said. She said he will always have a home with his family, so he will never have to be homeless again.
“He’s the kindest, sweetest soul, and he wouldn’t hurt anyone,” she said. “There is nothing they can do to give him back those years.”
Susan C. Beachy contributed research.
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