The Wrong Man

Tamara Jones
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 25, 2006

The impact stunned him, the sudden violence of it on a spring morning. Elias Fishburne IV, on his way to a 6 a.m. workout, now stood in his gym clothes on Route 50 in Cheverly and took measure of the damage. Talking on his cellphone, Fishburne had nearly sideswiped another car while changing lanes, then swerved away too hard and hit the guardrail. Elias was unhurt, but his Beemer was mangled.

A Maryland state trooper pulled up and took Fishburne's license and registration back to his patrol car. Fishburne called a friend who lived nearby to come pick him up. He'd have to get the car towed, file an insurance claim, and what about all the errands he needed to run before flying off to Puerto Rico for the weekend?

The trooper returned. The mood suddenly tightened.

Sir, you need to put your hands up on the car.

For what? I'm on my way to the gym.

Because you're under arrest.

He felt the metal cuffs clench his wrists. Heard the officer asking if he had been drinking or using any drugs. Felt the Breathalyzer between his lips. The trooper began searching the BMW. Fishburne's friend showed up, shocked to find Elias in the back of the police car, and asked the officer what was going on. Fishburne heard, but could not comprehend, the reply:

He's a fugitive from Atlanta, Georgia.

You have the wrong man, Fishburne remembers saying, in the patrol car, then again at the police substation where he was booked May 5, 2005. They kept calling him by a name he'd never heard before: Jarvis Tucker. On the warrant from Georgia, Elias Fishburne was listed as one of several known aliases used by a career criminal named Jarvis Tucker. Fishburne's vehement protests that there had been a mix-up were met with blank indifference. "Someone else will deal with that," he remembers someone in uniform telling him.

The thin court files and interviews with various officials confirm Fishburne's account of how an innocent man was swept through the justice system. Fishburne's soft voice is anguished even now, a year later, when he echoes the denial he sounded that day, and for the days and then weeks that followed.

This is not who I am .

At the Prince George's County Jail, Fishburne remembers the booking officer glancing at the image and description of Jarvis Tucker on his computer, and back at him, comparing the warrant with the driver's license of the frantic prisoner before him. The birth dates were three years apart. Tucker was described as an armed drug dealer who stood 5 feet 10 and weighed 190 pounds; the man in custody was two inches shorter and at least 50 pounds lighter. The facial features were dissimilar, too. The only trait indisputably shared was race. The fugitive in the system and the suspect in handcuffs were both black men.

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