It was the first mistake of many that led to Spriestersbach spending two years and eight months in jail and a mental institution for crimes he didn’t commit, according to a 36-page petition filed Monday by the Hawaii Innocence Project. While locked up, doctors pumped him full of powerful psychiatric drugs, judges ruled that he was unfit to stand trial, and his attorneys ignored his assertions that police had the wrong man, the document claims.
Police, doctors, judges, public defenders and prosecutors all “failed Spriestersbach — and their failure to do their jobs cost Mr. Spriestersbach almost three years of his life — incarcerated for a crime he never committed by a person … he never knew,” Innocence Project lawyer Jennifer Brown said in the petition.
“Every aspect of our justice system played a role in this miscarriage of justice,” Innocence Project co-director Kenneth Lawson told The Washington Post.
The Hawaii Office of the Public Defender did not respond to an email from The Post.
There were many opportunities to fix the injustice, Brown said.
The first came when the officer first found Spriestersbach on the sidewalk. Spriestersbach didn’t have an ID but gave the officer his full name, date of birth and Social Security number. Nevertheless, the officer insisted that Spriestersbach was actually Castleberry and took him to jail. He was fingerprinted and had his photo taken, generating records that could have been used to prove he wasn’t Castleberry, the Innocence Project asserts.
When Spriestersbach went to court for the first time in June 2017, he told the public defender his name and provided the same identifying information he’d given the officer, Brown said in the petition. Spriestersbach said he wasn’t even on Oahu in 2006 when the crime happened because he was being treated at a mental health clinic more than 150 miles away on the Big Island.
Instead of investigating, the public defender requested that a three-judge panel evaluate Spriestersbach’s mental state, Brown said.
Soon after, Spriestersbach was transferred to Hawaii State Hospital, where he kept telling anyone who would listen that he wasn’t Castleberry. He also told hospital employees his name, date of birth and Social Security number, according to the petition.
“No one believed Mr. Spriestersbach, and they continued to call him Mr. Castleberry,” Brown said.
At the hospital, Spriestersbach was forced to go to group sessions for drug users because of the nature of Castleberry’s crimes, she said. Spriestersbach has no history of using or abusing drugs and said so.
For speaking out, Spriestersbach was deemed “problematic” and given antipsychotic medications, including Haldol, which made him despondent and catatonic.
Spriestersbach protested the “heavy doses,” the petition states, but that just made things worse.
“The more Mr. Spriestersbach vocalized his innocence by asserting that he is not Mr. Castleberry, the more he was declared delusional and psychotic by the [hospital] staff and doctors and heavily medicated,” Brown wrote.
This went on for more than two more years, even though the public defenders representing him could have easily verified his claims, the petition argues.
Public defenders had represented the real Castleberry in 2006, so they could have reviewed the photo they had on file of Castleberry and seen that — as the Innocence Project noted — the two men “do not look alike at all.” They could have compared the Social Security number given by Spriestersbach with the one on a warrant for Castleberry and realized they didn’t match. Or they could have done a quick search of the Internet and public court records to find out the real Castleberry had been locked up in Alaska since 2016.
Instead, they “did absolutely nothing,” Brown said.
On Jan. 2, 2020, Spriestersbach said once more what he had been saying for more than two years: He wasn’t Castleberry. He wasn’t on probation. He had never used drugs and was not on Oahu in 2006 when the crimes were committed.
This time, someone listened.
One of the doctors who had previously found Spriestersbach mentally incompetent changed course and, after investigating, determined Spriestersbach had been telling the truth all along. That led the state hospital’s attorney to have a police detective take Spriestersbach’s fingerprints. They didn’t match the ones they had on file for Castleberry. Officials also compared photos of the two men — again, not a match.
On Jan. 17, 2020, hospital staff freed Spriestersbach.
Around that time, the state attorney general notified a judge and the public defender’s office of the situation, and a “secret meeting” followed. There is no court record of that meeting, which Brown said may have been because officials wanted to avoid public embarrassment.
Or maybe they “just thought no one would care enough because Mr. Spriestersbach was houseless, poor and in their eyes did not matter,” Brown said in the petition.
Gary Yamashiroya, a special assistant to Hawaii’s attorney general, said in an email to The Post that the department had not been served with a copy of the petition but would review the allegations and “respond accordingly.” Yamashiroya sent no follow-up messages.
After his release, Spriestersbach went to Vermont to live with his sister. Vedanta Dumas-Griffith told the Associated Press she spent nearly 16 years looking for her brother. She said Spriestersbach moved to Hawaii with her in 2003 when her husband was in the Army and stationed on Oahu. While suffering from mental health problems, Spriestersbach moved to the Big Island and then disappeared.
After her brother arrived in Vermont, Dumas-Griffith said she reached out to a local doctor who reviewed his discharge summary from Hawaii State Hospital. The doctor concluded the amount of psychiatric medications he was on was “well beyond therapeutic levels, which is why he was acting catatonic and his expressions vacant,” Dumas-Griffith said in a sworn statement to the court.
“He was a shell of his former self — his eyes were vacant, he was overly medicated, and looked like he had been through hell,” Dumas-Griffith said in a court filing.
The doctor was “shocked” by what Spriestersbach had been through. Spriestersbach was prescribed powerful drugs, the doctor added, in “an effort to make him ‘competent’ when in reality he had always been competent.”
As lawyers with the Hawaii Innocence Project prepared to clear Spriestersbach’s name, they reached out to the public defender’s office that had once represented him for documents needed to build their case.
According to the petition, a public defender named William Bento told them he had consulted with the state Department of the Attorney General. Bento, who did not respond to a request for comment, said officials in that office had instructed him not to hand over any documents related to Castleberry’s 2006 drug case, including all records filed after May 2017 that actually pertained to Spriestersbach.
Spriestersbach was not entitled to the documents, officials said.
The reason: He was not the defendant in that case. He was not Thomas Castleberry.