It shouldn't have been a whodunit.

In July 2002, Jeff and Jessica Nichols returned to their Clinton home from a trip to New Jersey and discovered someone had gotten inside their garage by breaking a side window. A landscaping lawn mower, which they had bought used for $3,600, had been stolen.

From talking to neighbors, the couple learned that the lawn mower was in someone's garage a few blocks away. The couple got the name of a suspect -- a young white man named Daniel Miller, whose middle name is Paul.

One neighbor, Michael Moses, told the couple that he'd seen a young white man, between 18 and 25, driving away with the lawn mower on a wooden trailer attached to a green Jeep Cherokee. Moses gave the same information to the police. Before long, the Nicholses had recovered the lawn mower.

In January 2003, Detective John L. Dougans of the Prince George's police wrote a charging document and obtained an arrest warrant for the burglary.

In May, nearly two years after the lawn mower theft, Virginia State Police stopped Daniel Anthony Miller of Spotsylvania County for a traffic violation. After a computer check, Miller was arrested for stealing the mower.

Miller spent three weeks in jail before authorities determined he was innocent and ordered him released. Miller is black, was 36 at the time of his arrest, and said he has never been to Clinton.

"It's just scary, because when you get caught up in the system, you're just a number," Miller said. "They were looking for a white guy, and they end up with a black guy. It could just as easily have been for murder."

Jeff and Jessica Nichols believe they also suffered because of the erroneous arrest.

At about 2 a.m. on Sept. 4, Daniel Paul Miller, 21, the man they identified as having stolen the lawn mower, attacked Jeff Nichols outside an Upper Marlboro tavern, according to police and the couple.

The attack occurred about 10 days after Daniel Paul Miller learned from a private investigator, who was working for a civil attorney hired by Daniel Anthony Miller, that the other Miller had been arrested and released for the lawn mower theft.

Daniel Paul Miller smacked Nichols in the head with a tire iron, then stabbed Nichols in the ear with the edge of the tool, according to the couple and police. Jeff Nichols required 16 stitches in his head. County police have obtained an arrest warrant charging Daniel Paul Miller with assaulting Nichols.

"It's pretty crazy," Jessica Nichols said.

In a phone interview, Daniel Paul Miller denied stealing the lawn mower. Asked about the assault on Nichols, he replied, "I don't really have anything to say about it."

The episode is reminiscent of an incident last year, in which Prince George's County homicide detectives charged a woman and two teenage girls from Arizona for a murder they had nothing to do with.

The woman and the two teenagers spent three weeks in jail before a prosecutor determined they were innocent and called for their release. In that case, images of the woman and two teenagers had been captured on a bank surveillance video camera. Detectives believed that the time stamp on the video footage showed the three using a debit card that belonged to the victim, a Mitchellville woman.

Authorities later learned that the video time stamp was not synchronized with electronic records of bank transactions. It turned out the woman and teenagers had been using their own debit cards, as they had told police. The Mitchellville murder remains unsolved.

It is unclear why Daniel Anthony Miller was arrested for the lawn mower theft, when charging papers described a young white male suspect.

Meanwhile, Dougans has retired, officials said. Efforts to locate him were unsuccessful.

According to Moses, the Nichols's neighbor, Dougans attributed statements to him in the charging document that he never made.

The document contains one full page and two half-pages of narrative, written by Dougans. The first page of the document identifies the suspect as Daniel Anthony Miller, a white male, born Aug. 29, 1967, 5 feet 9 inches tall and 160 pounds.

The date of birth and height and weight are correct. The description of Daniel Anthony Miller as a white male is incorrect.

Dougans wrote that he obtained the identity of "Defendant Miller" from the victims and witnesses. Dougans wrote that Moses, the witness, recorded the tag number of the green Cherokee he said was used to haul away the lawn mower.

The Maryland tag that Moses purportedly recorded was "allegedly" turned in to the Motor Vehicle Administration in March 1999, according to the charging document Dougans wrote. Daniel Anthony Miller said he did in fact turn in those tags in March 1999.

Moses said he never wrote down the tag number of the Jeep and never told Dougans that he had done so. "I just remember giving a description of the vehicle and the white male. I don't carry a pen and note pad with me," Moses said.

On May 29, Daniel Anthony Miller was stopped by Virginia State Police on Route 1 in Spotsylvania County, Miller said. He said he was stopped because he did not have his front tag on his car. The trooper ran a routine warrants check and asked him if he knew anything about a burglary in Maryland, Daniel Anthony Miller said.

Though he responded that he knew nothing of the burglary or the warrant, the trooper arrested Daniel Anthony Miller and took him to the Stafford County jail.

"It was horrible. I've never been incarcerated in my life," he said. "There were drug dealers, accused murderers, all sorts of characters in my pod."

Daniel Anthony Miller said he had three hearings during his first two weeks in jail, during which he was not granted bond.

With the help of his mother, Sandra Moore, Daniel Anthony Miller hired a Greenbelt lawyer, David M. Simpson. Simpson said he called the Prince George's state's attorney's office and told the prosecutor assigned to the case that his client was innocent and not of the same race as the suspect.

The prosecutor filed a motion to allow Daniel Anthony Miller to leave jail on June 17.

He said he drove himself to the courthouse in Upper Marlboro and introduced himself to the prosecutor, Assistant State's Attorney Jhana R. Bessicks. The prosecutor looked at him and did not ask any questions, Daniel Anthony Miller said. The charges against him were dropped.

Daniel Anthony Miller has hired Riverdale lawyer Terrell N. Roberts III and said he plans to file a civil lawsuit against Prince George's County police.

Sharon Weidenfeld, the private investigator who is working for Roberts on the case, pieced much of the story together by interviewing Jeff and Jessica Nichols, both Millers, and Bessicks. Of Daniel Anthony Miller, Weidenfeld said, "He's a totally innocent man. He just had the misfortune of being named Miller."

Jeff Nichols, above and at left, needed 16 stitches after an attack by a neighbor accused of stealing Nichols's lawn mower, which he found not long after it was taken.Daniel Anthony Miller spent three weeks in jail after being arrested on a warrant describing a white suspect in a lawn mower theft. His mother, Sandra Moore, right, helped Miller hire a lawyer whose efforts led to Miller's release.