It was 84 degrees in Honolulu when Joshua Spriestersbach laid down on the sidewalk outside of a homeless shelter while waiting in line for food. He soon awoke to a cop standing over him, interrogating him about what he was doing there. He was subsequently arrested and charged with violating the city’s ordinance against sitting or lying in public spaces.
At the time of his arrest in May 2017, Spriestersbach gave the Honolulu Police his full government name, date of birth and Social Security number. None of this mattered. Spriestersbach was arrested and booked as a different person — Thomas Castleberry — a man who was wanted on a felony probation violation. Spriestersbach was then held behind bars for the next four months.
When Spriestsersbach’s day in court finally arrived, he was assigned a public defender. Because he continued to insist that he wasn’t Thomas Castleberry, his lawyer asked the judge to appoint a panel of mental-health examiners to gauge the mental fitness of his client. They found Spriestsersbach to be mentally incompetent — he appeared to suffer from the delusion that he wasn’t Thomas Castleberry.
Spriestersbach was sent to the Hawaii State Mental Hospital, where he remained for the next two and a half years, enduring what can only be described as a living nightmare.
Sadly, Spriestersbach’s case isn’t uncommon. In 2018, 63-year-old Eugene Wright was arrested and taken to a Pennsylvania mental hospital, where he was injected with an antipsychotic despite his protests. All he did wrong was have the same name as another man. Like Spriestersbach, Wright insisted they had the wrong person, but no one listened. Five years earlier in Australia, a 22-year-old Aboriginal man was detained by police who were on the hunt for a missing mental-hospital patient. The young man was taken into custody and mistakenly “returned” to the mental hospital. Once inside, he was given Clozapine, a heavy antipsychotic to which he had a severe adverse reaction. He was rushed to the ICU at a nearby hospital. It was only then that the mistaken identity was finally sorted out.
Spriestersbach’s case wasn’t sorted for nearly three years. The entire time he told anyone who would listen — hospital staff, HPD officers, jail deputies, his court-appointed mental-health assessors — that he wasn’t who they thought he was, but they ignored him. Until, finally, one doctor gave him a fair hearing. All it took was a photograph and some fingerprints. Spriestersbach was eventually returned to the homeless shelter where he was first arrested. He was released with 50 cents in his pocket.
Somehow, he was able to contact his sister, Vedanta Griffith, who contacted the Hawaii Innocent Project, who filed a petition to get Spriestersbach’s record cleared and his identity separated from Castleberry’s. Spriestersbach left Hawaii to join his sister in Vermont, where he now won’t leave her 10-acre property. “He’s so afraid that they’re going to take him again,” she explained to the AP.
To make sense of how Spriestersbach was wrongly locked up for so long, I reached out to the Hawaii Innocence Project, which works to exonerate the wrongly convicted through DNA technology, and spoke with Kenneth Lawson, the organization’s co-director and chief educator. During our conversation, he detailed how his own unique life experiences brought him to the work he does today and why sometimes the only thing you need to do to figure out when someone has been wrongly convicted is listen.
When Joshua Spriesersbach’s sister contacted you, what was the plan of action?
What we do in all of our cases: We investigate the case, and then once we have a credible claim that somebody was actually innocent and wrongfully incarcerated, we use students along with other volunteer attorneys to investigate the claim and then file a habeas petition in state court.
Since Spriestersbach had been released, what was the court’s reaction to your petition?
Right now, no one has responded. So what’ll happen is the prosecutor will respond to the petition, and a hearing will be set. Before this, there was a meeting of the prosecutor with the public defender and with the attorney represented from the Attorney General’s Office. The meeting was off-the-record. And the case ends at that point. But the problem is, if you look at Thomas Castleberry’s case online, you would never know Joshua was locked up for two years and eight months. It would look like it was the real Thomas Castleberry that was held, because there’s no record of Joshua in the court
In the petition filed by the Hawaii Innocence Project, you cite this meeting that occurs five days after Spriestersbach’s release on January 17th. Like you said, it’s held between the judge, prosecutor and public defender in his case. Is that common?
One, it’s very uncommon, and two, it’s hypocritical and extremely cowardly. Now I know those aren’t legal issues and legal terms, but it’s uncommon because an injustice has been done. So normally when you know or if you feel somehow you’ve been wronged in the law, whether it’s through a crime or through a tort, you go to court to get your justice. Now here they know in this secret meeting that a grave injustice has been done. Here they are in the very court that can fix that, or at least fix the record. And what do they do? Absolutely nothing. Out of all the things that happened in this case, this distressed me the most.
It seems far too easy for cases like this occur. Is there any protocol for a mental hospital to check incoming patients?
There’s a protocol, but the question becomes — let’s say you work at the mental hospital, and you get an order from a judge who says, “Look, this person isn’t competent. We’re ordering them into your institution.” And so, you figure by the time the judge opens this order that the lawyers and everybody else knows whoever’s on this order, it’s who they purport it to be. You know what I mean? So a hospital could rely on that, and say the judge ordered it: “We talked with the police who arrested the person and the judge had hearings. Everybody’s done their due diligence, so why would we question that this person isn’t who they purport to be?”
In our case, though, Joshua had been in this mental hospital — the same one — twice before this. So they knew him. He’d been there for a year in 2012, and for three months in 2009.
But because he wasn’t listed as Joshua Spriestersbach when he was brought in as Thomas Castleberry, nobody checked the files?
Well, yeah, they did. There are reports. Doctors, when they evaluated Joshua for his competency over the two years and eight months that he was there, there were a few doctors who’d say, “Hey, look, the staff found his birth certificate. I’m no longer going to refer to him as Thomas Castleberry; I’m going to call him what he’s been saying — Joshua Spriestersbach.” I can tell you that no one raised this issue, even though it had been in a report.
This is also what they use to doom him, correct? His insistence he’s not Thomas Castleberry is what the hospital staff use to justify treating him as delusional.
If you look at Joshua’s records, he kept denying that he was Thomas Castleberry. And he kept denying that he had a drug problem. Castleberry was on probation for methamphetamine and for having an addiction problem. Joshua never had a drug problem. So while he’s in the mental hospital, the staff keep saying, “Well, you have to go to your group for drug treatment. And if you don’t go to these groups, you don’t get certain privileges within the hospital. The more that you can follow our rules, the more privileges you get.”
The real Thomas Castleberry had been arrested and processed in that same jail in 2006, so the Honolulu PD and the jail had Thomas Castleberry’s photograph. They had his date of birth and his Social Security number because he was sent to the same jail they took Joshua to. It just amazes me how, when they take Joshua down there to the jail, why didn’t Thomas Castleberry’s picture pop up? And if it did, did anybody pay attention? Why didn’t the police officers verify his identity?
Are there any answers to those questions — other than incompetence and neglect?
They didn’t listen. Because in January 2020, when a doctor finally thought they may have the wrong person, they called the Attorney General and said, “I think we got the wrong person.” The Attorney General sent up a detective from the Honolulu Police Department. They arrived at the hospital with the real Thomas Castleberry photograph and with the real Thomas Castleberry fingerprints. It took one second. They looked at Joshua, looked at the photograph, and said, “This is the wrong guy.”
That should have been done at the moment that our client was arrested. And again, it should have been verified when he was being processed into the jail. When he goes and talks to his public defender — he had six or seven public defenders throughout the course of his case — not one of them picked up on the mistake.
My point is: The reason why this happened is because nobody cared. No one cared about a houseless man who struggles with mental-health issues. That’s the bottom line, because if you cared, you would’ve listened.
An older white man isn’t typically the one we expect to have his rights and humanity denied by the police and courts. But because he’s houseless, that seems to be the factor that allows him to be dismissed. Is that an issue in Hawaii, due to all the tourism?
The houseless in Hawaii is a bad image for tourism. So what happens is in order to make sure that Hawaii continues to make billions of dollars a year off tourism is: “We’ve got to move these houseless people away from Waikiki.” It’s just a lack of caring, and it occurs because it’s money driven. And with the cost of living in Hawaii, most people who work in the service industry are one paycheck away from being houseless.
Joshua Spriestersbach is now back stateside, living with his sister. Have you been in contact with him? Is there any therapy or outreach or anything that’s being done to help him deal with the results of what occurred?
We talk to him and to his family weekly. We keep them up-to-date on what’s going on and touch base with him. Another reason why this case was a little bit different from some of the cases we do at the project is because of my mother — I was born in a mental hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio.
So, this is very personal for you?
My mother went to the mental institution when she was four months pregnant with me, and she had schizophrenia, just like Joshua. I was taken from my mother, obviously, and put into an orphanage for two years, until I was adopted. But anyway, I ended up trying to find my mother, and eventually, I found her. I went back and got all of her hospital records because she stayed there for almost a decade. This was in the 1960s, so they gave her all that shock treatment and all the drugs. She would escape, they’d catch her and then they’d give her more shock treatments and more drugs.
My first year of practicing law, I wanted to find my mother. So I went down to Catholic Charities, which is the agency I was adopted through. That’s when the lady told me I was born in a mental hospital. And so, I was able to find my mother by going through probate records.
She was at a halfway house for mentally ill people. Years later, she developed a cancer that was treatable. I tried to talk to her, over and over again, urging her to go to the hospital and to get treatment. She would tell me — she named me Tony — she said, “Tony, I’m not going back to the hospital, because if I go there, they’re not going to let me go.” She said, “I’d rather just die.” And so, when Joshua is like, “Look, I’m not leaving my house. I don’t trust ‘em” — even once we get his record clear, that fear is probably still going to be there.
Since you’ve brought up your mother and your adoption, how much does that inform the empathy and compassion you have for your clients?
Even if you may not have had similar experiences, in order to care for other people, you have to see yourself as being of service to others. Instead of looking at your client as a case or a cause, you must see them as a human being. I tell my students, “When you read Brown v. the Board of Education, and when you read Plessy v. Ferguson, do you honestly think that when these individuals met with their lawyer, that their lawyer thought that years later, law students like you would be studying these cases?” You never know who’s going to walk through your door on a given day if you’re not paying attention and if you’re not listening.
A good lawyer brings all of his or her life experience. I know what it’s like to be locked-up. I know what it’s like not to be able to talk to people and to be mistreated while you’re in there. I know what it’s like to be born in a mental hospital and then grow up in an orphanage, pass the bar, become a lawyer, go through addiction and be sent to prison. But I also know what it’s like to be given a second chance, to be teaching law at a law school and to run the Hawaii Innocence Project. It’s all a blessing — as long as I can continue to stay focused on listening to others.