[Hpn] Deaf man wrongly jailed in D.C. for nearly two years

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Tue, 04 Sep 2001 09:43:00 -0700

...and I thought the legislature was the slowest-moving thing in DC.



Nation & World : Saturday, September 01, 2001

Deaf man wrongly jailed in D.C. for nearly two years

By Serge F. Kovaleski and Clarence Williams
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON, D.C.  A deaf man who is unable to speak and suffers from mental
illness was incarcerated mistakenly at the Washington, D.C., jail for nearly
two years, lost in a bureaucracy that relied on inaccurate computer records,
mishandled his files and failed to realize the misdemeanor charge against
him had been dismissed.

Joseph Heard, 42, was released from the jail Aug. 13 and sent to a
mental-health hospital after corrections officials retrieved his case file
from storage and discovered the error. The document had been archived about
a year ago after jail workers erroneously classified it as inactive.

Corrections officials said the problem began Oct. 13, 1999, when U.S.
marshals at District of Columbia Superior Court delivered Heard to the
city's main detention facility without paperwork.

A records examiner at the jail was informed by a court official during a
telephone conversation that Heard's unlawful-entry case had just been
dismissed and that he was ordered to be set free.

Files authorizing his release, however, never arrived, and no one at the
jail checked to see whether the discrepancy had been resolved.

"We knew from Day One that his case had been dismissed," said city
Department of Corrections Director Odie Washington, who has ordered an
investigation that is nearing completion. "The responsibility for this
erroneous detention rests solely on the Department of Corrections. ... There
was a failure to follow up, and the case got lost after that."

The series of errors, in effect, condemned Heard to an open-ended sentence,
which he served inside a solitary cell in the jail's mental-health unit.

Heard, a paranoid schizophrenic with a string of crimes in his past, became
a model prisoner in the facility's South Wing, roused in the mornings for
669 days by guards who would tap his foot or head so he could take his

Corrections officials said jail records show that Heard did not receive
visits from family members, friends or lawyers during the nearly two-year
period. Washington said Heard used a telephone for the hearing impaired in
the jail in an attempt to contact someone, but he had no further details.

Heard was unable to communicate with virtually anyone in the jail. He
apparently never complained about being behind bars, corrections officials

"It appears he just accepted his incarceration," Washington said. "He made
no complaints that we know about."

Informed this month to pack up his belongings because he would soon be
leaving, Heard smiled broadly, according to a corrections officer. Heard
voluntarily agreed to be admitted to St. Elizabeths Hospital for treatment
and observation. 

Reached Thursday night at St. Elizabeths, Heard was unsure of the length of
his incarceration, saying he thought it lasted four years. He said he knew
all along that he did not belong there and that he told people about it.

"I do not know why I stayed in jail," Heard said with the aid of an
interpreter at St. Elizabeths and a TTY operator. "I was not happy in jail."

Court documents paint a picture of a drifter-like existence for Heard over
the past decade, during which he stayed at shelters for the homeless. He
arrived in the Washington D.C. area about 1995, on welfare and with no job.
Court files list his marriage status as "separated" and mention no family.

Court records show a list of run-ins with the law in the District of
Columbia, Maryland and Florida.

He has listed addresses in Orlando, Indianapolis and Greenbelt, Md., and
charges against him have included second-degree assault and fourth-degree
sex offenses in Maryland and trespassing offenses in Florida.

Heard last was arrested in the district Nov. 15, 1998, charged with unlawful
entry at George Washington University. On March 15, 1999, Judge John
Campbell ordered a monthlong mental-competency exam to determine Heard's
fitness to stand trial. But mental-health services psychiatrist Roy Coleman
said in an April 15 letter that he needed at least 45 days to complete such

The court ordered a second such exam April 23, 1999. A report on the exam,
filed June 3, 1999, concluded that Heard was mentally unable to stand trial.
Coleman's second report said Heard's medical records showed he received
anti-depressant and anti-psychotic medication.

Psychiatric evaluations described Heard as "a small, fit, African-American
man with a full, bushy beard and mustache." At various times during
court-ordered evaluations, psychiatrists note that Heard claimed, in writing
and through interpreters, that he was related to President Kennedy and heard
voices from God. 

On June 3, 1999, the judge, following Coleman's recommendation, ordered
Heard committed to St. Elizabeths. He was diagnosed a month later as
paranoid schizophrenic. His status remained that way through September 1999,
when doctors found him incompetent "by virtue of not having a factual and
rational understanding of the proceedings pending against him."

The District of Columbia Superior Court case file had a box checked Sept. 13
stating that Heard should be returned to St. Elizabeths. One month later, an
order to the superintendent at St. Elizabeths from the court stated that
Heard should be released from custody. But a handwritten note on the order

Washington said corrections workers at Superior Court who processed Heard
after the misdemeanor charge of unlawful entry was dropped in October 1999
noticed computer records showed an outstanding 1996 misdemeanor charge of
receiving stolen property.

In reality  and unknown to the corrections workers  the information in the
computer was inaccurate: That charge had been dropped previously.

Nonetheless, corrections personnel notified U.S. marshals, who transported
Heard to the jail. Washington said marshals told the intake staff that the
paperwork on Heard was on the way  a common practice when someone is
delivered to the jail.

But when documents did not show up, Washington said, jail officials called
the court, where a worker said the paperwork would be sent. The worker
stipulated that Heard, in fact, had been ordered released at a hearing that
day, Washington said.

A corrections employee reviewing records that night made a note of the
discrepancy in Heard's file and wrote down that paperwork authorizing his
release was expected, Washington said. The worker also wrote a note about
the situation to her supervisor so he could follow up on the case the next
day, something he was supposed to do, according to Washington.

"This is where the black hole begins," Washington said.

The paperwork never arrived, and apparently neither the supervisor nor
anyone else checked on Heard's case. The supervisor still is employed at the

Washington said that because a specific sentence was not in the file, jail
officials never reviewed Heard's status. Such reviews are supposed to occur
regularly so officials can determine when inmates are eligible for release.

"In this case, there was no calculation to be made," Washington said. "There
was nothing to clue the staff that this guy was staying too long or should
not have been there at all."

Copyright  2001 The Seattle Times Company

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