Man locked up in Hawaii mental hospital for two years in case of mistaken identity

A homeless man wrongly arrested for a crime committed by someone else and locked up in a mental hospital for more than two years was quietly released when officials realised their mistake, court documents in Hawaii have shown.

Earlier this week the Hawaii Innocence Project asked a judge to rescind the arrest and correct Joshua Spriestersbach’s records.

The court filing explains his bizarre plight that started with him falling asleep on a sidewalk. He was homeless and hungry while waiting in a long line for food outside a Honolulu shelter in 2017.

Joshua Spriestersbach on the phone in March 2020 in Vermont. (Pic: Vedanta Griffith via AP)
Joshua Spriestersbach on the phone in March 2020 in Vermont. Pic: Vedanta Griffith via AP

When a police officer woke him, Mr Spriestersbach thought he was being arrested for the city’s ban on sitting or laying down on public sidewalks.

However the officer had mistaken him for a man named Thomas Castleberry, who had a warrant out for his arrest for violating probation in a 2006 drug case.

Mr Spriestersbach somehow ended up with Mr Castleberry as his alias, even though he never claimed to be Mr Castleberry or met him, according to the Hawaii Innocence Project.

Lawyers for Mr Spriestersbach have said it all could have been cleared up if police had simply compared the two men’s photographs and fingerprints.

Instead, despite Mr Spriestersbach’s protests that he wasn’t Mr Castleberry, he was committed to the Hawaii State Hospital (HSH).

“Yet, the more Mr Spriestersbach vocalised his innocence by asserting that he is not Mr Castleberry, the more he was declared delusional and psychotic by the HSH staff and doctors and heavily medicated,” the petition said.

“It was understandable that Mr Spriestersbach was in an agitated state when he was being wrongfully incarcerated for Mr Castleberry’s crime and despite his continual denial of being Mr Castleberry and providing all of his relevant identification and places where he was located during Mr Castleberry’s court appearances, no one would believe him or take any meaningful steps to verify his identity and determine that what Mr Spriestersbach was telling the truth – he was not Mr Castleberry.”

Waikiki Beach in Honolulu (File pic)
Waikiki Beach in Honolulu (File pic)

Eventually a hospital psychiatrist listened to him and Google searches and phone calls verified that Mr Spriestersbach was on another island when Mr Castleberry was initially arrested, according to the court document.

Fingerprints and photographs determined that the wrong man had been arrested and Mr Spriestersbach was quickly and secretly released, the petition said.

“A secret meeting was held with all of the parties, except Mr Spriestersbach, present. There is no court record of this meeting or no public court record of this meeting, ” the court document said.

“No entry or order reflects this miscarriage of justice that occurred or a finding that Mr Spriestersbach is not Thomas Castleberry.”

After his release, the now 50-year-old ended up at a homeless shelter, which contacted his family.

“Part of what they used against him was his own argument: ‘I’m not Thomas Castleberry. I didn’t commit these crimes. This isn’t me’,” his sister Vedanta Griffith told the Associated Press agency.

“So they used that as saying he was delusional, as justification for keeping him.

“And then when light is shown on it, what do they do? They don’t even put it on the record. They don’t make it part of the case,” Ms Griffith said.

“And then they don’t come to him and say, ‘We are so sorry’ or, how about even ‘Gee, this wasn’t you. You were right all along’.”

Mr Spriestersbach now refuses to leave his sister’s home in Vermont.

“He’s so afraid that they’re going to take him again,” Ms Griffith said.

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