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Amends Made in Wrongful Jailing

Joseph Heard, with attorney W. Thomas Stovall, leaves St. Elizabeths Hospital, where he was sent after spending 22 months in jail.
Joseph Heard, with attorney W. Thomas Stovall, leaves St. Elizabeths Hospital, where he was sent after spending 22 months in jail. (2001 Photo By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)

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By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 5, 2005

Joseph Heard, the deaf, mute and mentally disabled man who was mistakenly held in the D.C. jail for nearly two years, will receive between $1.2 million and $1.5 million from the District and a private contractor to settle a three-year-old lawsuit under an agreement approved yesterday by a federal judge.

The District also agreed to pay reasonable attorney fees for the law firm Heard used, although that amount remains in dispute. The private contractor, which provided medical services at the jail and was responsible for monitoring Heard, agreed to pay $640,000.

Yesterday's hearing marked the final chapter in a case of wrongful imprisonment that shocked top city officials, inmate rights groups and advocates for the disabled when it came to light almost four years ago.

Heard was arrested in November 1998 on a misdemeanor charge of unlawful entry and ordered committed to St. Elizabeths Hospital several months later. After doctors found him mentally incompetent to stand trial, a D.C. Superior Court judge in October 1999 dismissed the charge and ordered him set free.

But he was taken to the jail instead because computer records erroneously showed that he had an outstanding charge in another case. Although a records officer at the jail later learned that this charge, too, had been dismissed, the paperwork authorizing Heard's release never arrived.

Heard, who had received a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, stayed at the jail until Aug. 13, 2001, after jail officials reviewing the files of inmates in the mental health unit wondered why they could not locate his records.

During those 22 months, he received no visits from family members, friends or attorneys. He often scrawled the word "innocent" on scraps of paper and tried to communicate through another inmate that his jailing was a big mistake, but guards and mental health staff ignored his pleas, according to Heard and several witnesses who gave depositions in his lawsuit.

Heard, now 45, lives in Orlando with his sister, Sandy Hayes, who is a nurse. He did not attend the hearing, and his sister said he has chosen not to return to Washington, except when necessary for meetings with his attorneys, because of memories of his ordeal.

"I'm glad they finally came to a settlement," Hayes said yesterday in an interview. "Hopefully, this will improve his life and he'll forget about those two years they took from him."

His attorneys said they incurred $1 million in legal fees representing him in the lawsuit. The District contests the amount, and the court is expected to decide on an appropriate fee.

Heard's attorneys said their legal costs would have been much lower if the city had not caused the case to drag on. John Moustakas, one of the attorneys, said the city repeatedly refused to provide certain jail records and stalled in discussing a settlement amount.

"They locked him up illegally and unconstitutionally for two years," Moustakas said. "It's an obvious case of false imprisonment and violation of his civil rights. But still, the District fought us and played around with us for two years."

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