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Warnings Of Wrongful Jailing Went Unheeded

Joseph Heard was released in 2001 after 22 months in the D.C. jail.
Joseph Heard was released in 2001 after 22 months in the D.C. jail. (Juana Arias - Twp)

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By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 7, 2005

Throughout the 669 days that Joseph Heard spent in the D.C. jail, nearly a dozen employees working there had warnings that he was wrongly imprisoned and had opportunities to fix the mistake.

A review of records and testimony obtained over the course of Heard's lawsuit, which ended recently in a settlement, shows that the deaf, mute and mentally disabled man was held without reason because of missteps, policy flaws and missed -- or ignored -- chances to correct the error.

Heard should have been freed on his second day behind bars, an internal D.C. Department of Corrections investigation shows, when a jail records clerk confirmed with the court that he should not be in the jail because no charges were pending against him. She noted that in his file, but no one followed up to make sure he was freed.

Heard's caseworker, the jail employee designated as his chief advocate, could provide no record of meeting with him during the months Heard was assigned to her, although the department requires caseworkers to document each meeting. She later explained that she could not represent his interests well or learn his legal status because she could not find his file, according to the investigation.

A fellow inmate with limited sign language skills said in a deposition that he alerted Heard's social worker to Heard's claim that he was in jail by mistake but was told to mind his own business.

All that came at a time when the Department of Corrections had been warned repeatedly that its flawed records system was bound to result in people being jailed or released in error, but the department had done little to address the problem. A series of internal investigations and reports called the records office dysfunctional and the computer system riddled with errors.

Heard, 45, is set to receive between $1.2 million and $1.5 million from the District and a private jail contractor to compensate him for his 22-month ordeal. The settlement was approved last week by a federal judge who expressed her hope that the money would help Heard pay for housing and some modest comforts. Heard, who has a second-grade reading level, is living in Florida.

Officials at the Department of Corrections said that they are sorry for what happened to Heard and that they have taken numerous steps to clear up problems in jail records and computer systems so a case like his never happens again.

"I think that it goes without saying, that this is an incident that we deeply regret," interim director S. Elwood York Jr. said in a statement. "We've made great progress in the changes that have been made in our new system and will continue to strive to get even better."

Lawyers familiar with jail records said that the department has made improvements but that they think close attention is needed to ensure that the system does not deteriorate.

Lack of Follow-Up

Heard's plight began Oct. 13, 1999, according to the internal investigation, when D.C. Superior Court Judge John M. Campbell ordered him released from St. Elizabeths Hospital after determining that he was not competent to stand trial for a minor 1998 charge of unlawfully entering a George Washington University Law School building. U.S. marshals called the D.C. jail and asked what they should do with him. An officer there said Heard should be returned to the jail so officials could make sure there were no pending charges.

An evening-shift clerk at the jail noticed a discrepancy in Heard's records. The jail computer system, called CRISYS, showed he had a pending 1996 misdemeanor charge for touching a woman on the buttocks. But because misdemeanors typically carry sentences of less than six months, the timing seemed strange. It was too late in the day to check with the court, though, so she noted the discrepancy and left the matter for the day shift to handle.


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