In what can only be described as the real-life plot of a horror movie script, a homeless man was wrongfully arrested and locked up in a mental hospital for over two years, after being mistaken for a man he had never even met.
Joshua Spriestersbach’s nightmare began on a hot day in 2017, while waiting in line for food outside a homeless shelter in Honolulu. When police woke him up, he thought he was being arrested for breaking the city’s law against sitting and lying on public sidewalks, but little did he know that things were a lot more serious than that. What Spriestersbach didn’t realize was that the police officer had somehow mistaken him for one Thomas Castleberry, who had a warrant out for his arrest for violating probation in a 2006 drug case. The fact that the two didn’t even look similar didn’t seem to matter to anyone, and instead of simply checking photographs or fingerprints of the two men, the homeless man simply became Castleberry.
The Hawaii public defender’s office did a poor job of depending Joshua Spriestersbach, and despite his repeated protests that he wasn’t the man everyone though he was, he was committed to a mental institution and constantly administered psychiatric drugs to keep him sedated. The more he tried to convince people he wasn’t this Thomas Castleberry, the more everyone though he was being delusional.
“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 H.S.H. staff and doctors and heavily medicated,” a petition recently drafted by the Hawaii Innocence Project said. “It was understandable that Mr. Spriestersbach was in an agitated state when he was being wrongfully incarcerated for Mr. Castleberry’s crime and despite his continual denial of being Mr. Castleberry and providing all of his relevant identification and places where he was located during Mr. Castleberry’s court appearances, no one would believe him or take any meaningful steps to verify his identity and determine that what Mr. Spriestersbach was telling the truth – he was not Mr. Castleberry.”
Unfortunately, no one believed Joshua Spriestersbach, until one psychiatrist finally decided to listen to what he was saying and conduct some simple research. All it took was a few phone calls and a Google search to learn that Joshua Spriestersbach wasn’t even on the same island as Thomas Castleberry when the latter was initially arrested. Furthermore, the real Castleberry had already been incarcerated in an Alaska prison since 2016.
The psychiatrist than hired a detective who finally did what was supposed to have been done in the first place – verify fingerprints and photographs to determine the wrong man had been arrested.
At this point, Spriestersbach had spent two years and eight months in a mental institution for no reason whatsoever.
You’d think that after such a colossal blunder, Hawaii State Hospital would do anything to redeem itself and make amends. You’d be wrong! After the prints and photographs were verified, officials held a secret meeting and decided to quietly release Spriestersbach with only 50 cents to his name, thinking no one would care about another homeless man released on the streets.
However, after his release, Spriestersbach ended up at a homeless shelter, which, upon hearing his story, contacted his family, specifically his sister, Vedanta Griffith, who had spent nearly 16 years looking for him. Joshua is now living with her in Vermont, and won’t leave the 10-acre property for fear “that they’re going to take him again”.
Part of what they used against him was his own argument: ‘I’m not Thomas Castleberry. I didn’t commit these crimes. … This isn’t me,’” Vedanta Griffith told The Associated Press. “So they used that as saying he was delusional, as justification for keeping him.”
The Hawaii Innocence Project filed court documents detailing Joshua Spriestersbach’s case and asking a judge to set the record straight.
This case reminds us of another gross judicial error, where a Mexican man spent over two decades in prison for killing a man who is actually still alive.