Late on the night of Oct. 9, 1975, William Henry Alston, drunk and babbling incoherently, staggered out of a bar on Naylor Road in Silver Hill. There, he encountered a Prince George's County policeman, swore at the officer, and was arrested, handcuffed and sent off to the county jail.
It was the beginning of a criminal justice nightmare.
For the next seven months, Alston, an inarticulate man with a drinking problem, was victimized at every step of the legal process.
The police mistook him for another suspect with the same name, booked him on the wrong charges and did not attempt to free him even after they knew they had the wrong man.
The attorneys and the judge involved in the case mistook Alston's persistent pleas of innocence as the ravings of a mentally unstable man and sent him off to a mental institution.
The doctors at the mental institution concluded that his unwillingness to accept the charges against him were signs of paranoia and schizophrenia. They treated him with a steady diet of tranquilizers.
Alston, a former cabdriver in Northeast Washington, is dead. He died of acute alcoholism last February at age 38, three years after his bitter odyssey. But the full story of what happened to this man for those seven months in 1975 to 1976 has never been told until now. It is a story, as one police officer put it, "straight out of 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.'"
After his arrest on that fateful October night four years ago, Alson was taken to the Oxon Hill police station where he was handcuffed to a bench and interviewed by the arresting officer, Dennis Charles (D.C.) Babcock. The interview went slowly, but Babcock finally extracted a name -- William Alston -- and a birthdate -- Dec. 14, 1941 -- from the suspect. He then telephoned the sheriff's office for a routine warrant check.
Babcock learned that two warrants had been issued recently for the arrest of one William Lewis Alston, who was wanted for heroin possession and breaking into a storehouse.
The Alston described in the warrants was black, six feet, 175 pounds, and bearded -- all similar to the Alston he arrested. The birthdates were different, but close enough to satisfy Babcock. Alston went to jail.
The official arrest record read: "William Lewis Alston, aka William Henry Alston." The real name had become his alias.
When Babcock came to work the next day, he phoned Detective Danny Lewis at the Hyattsville police station. Lewis' name was on one of the warrants, and it was a courtesy to inform other officers that their suspects were in custody.
"The warrant on William Alston was served last night," Babcock told Lewis, adding that the man was in jail.
Later that day, Lewis called Babcock and told him he visited the jail and talked to Alston. He said the wrong man had been arrested. It was not the Alston he was looking for. Lewis, contacted recently, refused to discuss his role in the case. His actions that night, however, were recorded in jail documents.
"Apparently he was banging his head against the wall and claiming that he was the wrong man," said an investigator at the county public defender's office. "He had this silly little notion that he was the wrong man."
On Oct. 29, three weeks after he was jailed, Alston was brought before District Court Judge Robert Mason.
The state's attorney and public defender were concerned about Alston's behavior in jail and wanted to send him to the Clifton T. Perkins mental hospital, a maximum-security institution for the criminally insane.
"Do you believe that he is incompetent?" Mason asked.
"Your honor," replied the state's attorney, "I just talked to him back there, or attempted to talk to him. He is rather incoherent. He rambles. He never stops talking. He really doesn't appear to know exactly what's going on. He wanted to go see his sister because she is [the] boss and she can straighten everything out. . ."
Alston spoke up, in a halting voice.
"Could I. . .I know I'm a little bit out of turn. . .I wonder, could I get another shot at it and go home and. . .have another shot at it, I mean if I went home. . ." his voice trailed off.
Mason explained to Alston that the state's attorney had requested that he be sent to Perkins to see if "you have any problems they can help you with and then maybe bring you back here and see what we will do. How do you feel about that?"
"I figure, I figure, I think if I could go home I would be better off," Alston said, "And I don't have any desire to spend my life in a penitentiary because there is too much life. . .I am really sincere about becoming a minister."
"Mr. Alston, I agree with you," the judge said. "And I think I am going to send you over to Perkins hospital. . .to see if there is anything we can do to help you."
"Can I ask you one more thing?" Alston said, "I didn't know that, I didn't know, that, I didn't know that you was going to help me, and I had my mind set, my mind set on getting out of jail."
"We are going to get you out of jail, at least temporarily," the judge answered. "We are going to make things better. Next case."
A week later, Alston was sent to the state mental hospital at Jessup.
He was examined and brought before the medical staff. He complained that he still did not think he belonged there, that he was the wrong person.
Several weeks later, Dr. Ido Adamo chief clinical director of the institution, wrote the judge that it was the "unanimous opinion of the medical staff that Mr. Alston does not understand the nature and object of the proceedings against him" and that his protests were merely confirmation of his problem.
Alston, the doctors said, was suffering from a "gross psychotic disorder," diagnosed as "schizophrenia . . . with paranoid features."
The hospital requested that he remain at Perkins for further treatment, which included heavy doses of Thorazine, a tranquilizer.
After nearly six months at Perkins, Alston began scribbling letters to the Prince George's public defender's office.
"Dear Public Defened," one began "I were arrest for drink in public and they charge me with dope and breaking an entry that I did not do . . .
"I were sick at the time . . . I were out of my mind at the time I were put in jail and I need a lawyer real bad."
In March, Alston was again brought before the doctors.
"Mr. Alston has begun to respond favorably to our therapeutic measures . . . " they reported back unanimously to the judge. Alston showed "definite improvement" though still displaying paranoid concern about the charges against him, they said.
"Our current diagnosis is: schizophrenia . . . in partial remission."
Howard Campbell, a former District of Columbia police investigator who worked for the Prince George's public defender's office, had been receiving letters from Alston.
He checked records at the sherriff's office and learned that, in fact, the birthdates and middle initials of the Alston at Perkins Hospital and the one on the warrants were different.
He worked diligently and discovered that William Lewis Alston, for whom the warrants were issued, was actually in a D.C. jail all along, on unrelated charges.
He immediately contacted Judge Mason, as well as Arthur Marshall, the state's attorney for Prince George's, and Autry M. Noblitt, the deputy public defender, who immediately assigned himself the case.
At 10:30 a.m., May 6, 1976, Judge Mason called a meeting attended by Howard Campbell, Marshall, Noblitt, another state's attorney, and the two policemen, Danny Lewis and D.C. Babcock.
Mason said it appeared the wrong man had been arrested, and he would order order Alston released.
State's Attorney Marshall protested. Even if Alston was wrongly charged and incarcerated, Marshall argued, the state should not release a man that the state mental hospital said was mentally ill, paranoid and schizophrenic.
Later that afternoon, Judge Mason and the others listened on telephones while the Perkins' doctors said that they had "reevaluated" their position and that it was now their "expert" opinion that William Henry Alston should be released. He would need prescriptions for medication he was receiving at the hospital, however, since withdrawing it immediately might prove harmful.
Alston was taken to Upper Marlboro, where Judge Mason released him. Howard Campbell, whose efforts won Alston's release, drove Alston to a hospital clinic for his medication.
I slept good that night," Campbell wrote later.
After hearing Alston's tale, an attorney assisted him in suing the county, the sheriff, and the police officers involved for $5 million for depriving him of his liberty.
In sworn depositions, policeman Babcock said he was told Alston was the wrong man the day after the arrest and took no steps to get him released. Detective Lewis said he did not recall, but did not deny, Babcock's testimony.
Lewis, in an interview last week, said he was "concerned" about the Alston case.
"In fact," Lewis said, "he was not the man. I was a part, maybe the major part, of a mistake that was made."
Dr. Adamo of Perkins defended the doctors and said it was not up to them to determine if a patient was wrongly arrested, but merely to treat him.
As for the other Mr. Alston, William Lewis Alston, for whom the two warrants were issued, he was in jail in the District from March 1975 until July 1976, the entire period of William Henry Alston's incarceration.
According to a sealed deposition Prince George's police Sgt. Elmer Snow gave on Nov. 21, 1977, William Lewis Alston had assisted police
According to a sealed deposition Prince George's police Sgt. Elmer Snow gave on Nov. 21, 1977, William Lewis Alston had assisted police in several cases.
Snow tried to get the heroin charge against William Lewis Alston dismissed by contacting the state's attorney's office.
Both charges against William Lewis Alston were eventually dropped.
William Henry Alston's suit against Prince George's was settled by his lawyer and the county after he was picked up again by police, only days before the trial was to begin, this time for trespassing.
The settlement brought Alston $20,000, more than enough, his lawyer said, to help him begin a new life, and perhaps buy a new taxicab if he wanted to go back to work as a cabdriver.
On Feb. 15, 1979, William Henry Alston was found dead of acute alcoholism.