Joshua Spriestersbach fell asleep on a sidewalk outside the Safe Haven homeless shelter in Chinatown on May 11, 2017 while waiting for a free meal.
When he woke, a Honolulu police officer arrested him for the crimes of another man — Thomas Castleberry — who was wanted for a probation violation related to a series of drug charges in 2006.
The mix-up led to Spriestersbach spending more than two years inside a state-run mental institution where he was heavily medicated and repeatedly told he was someone he was not despite his repeated protestations.
In January 2020, when the mistake was discovered, he was given 50 cents and released back onto the street outside the shelter where he was arrested in the first place.
The whole ordeal happened almost entirely out of public view — that is, until the Hawaii Innocence Project last week filed a petition in state court to clear Spriestersbach’s name and make sure he’s never arrested again for the crimes of Thomas R. Castleberry, a man who’s been incarcerated in Alaska since at least 2016.
Spriestersbach’s story of mistaken identity has since garnered national attention, from the Associated Press to the New York Times, yet officials in Hawaii have mostly kept quiet about a key question still on many people’s minds — how could this happen?
“We’re doing this to exonerate our client, but also to expose the system and its failures,” said Kenneth Lawson, a co-director of the Hawaii Innocence Project. “Mr. Spriestersbach was telling everyone who he was, that he wasn’t Thomas Castleberry, yet nobody was listening. And nobody was listening because nobody cared about a mentally ill man who was houseless.”
Lawson and the Innocence Project have questioned whether officials, from HPD to the public defender to the Hawaii attorney general to the judiciary itself, have tried to hide what happened to Spriestersbach in an attempt to escape public embarrassment and legal accountability.
His case, the petition states, represents a “miscarriage of justice” of the greatest proportions, one that could have been solved in just a few minutes by comparing Spriestersbach’s photo and fingerprints to those of Castleberry.
Instead of trying to address what went wrong, the petition states that those who were culpable “attempted to sweep their mistakes under the rug.”
For instance, the petition highlights court records that show the judge in the case held a closed-door meeting with the lawyers involved, including from the Hawaii Attorney General’s Office, shortly after Spriestersbach was released. Yet few details have come out about what was actually discussed.
The only note in the record says Judge Shirley Kawamura told those at the meeting to “inform their administrators of the situation.”
No changes were made to set the record straight or remove Thomas Castleberry’s name from the list of aliases associated with Spriestersbach, which means that even today he could be arrested for being someone he is not.
Equally as concerning, Lawson said, has been the public defender’s office’s refusal to turn over all documents related to the case.
In emailed communications, Deputy Public Defender William Bento told Lawson in September 2020 that the attorney general had advised his office not to provide the Innocence Project with the full case file related to Castleberry’s 2006 drug charges.
The reason: since Spriestersbach was determined not to be Castleberry, he no longer had a right to access those files.
Bento also questioned whether the documents would be used as evidence in a future lawsuit.
Most recently, Lawson said the innocence project has discovered that the Hawaii Criminal Justice Data Center, which is run by the attorney general, has updated its publicly available file on Spriestersbach with a new mugshot — one that, Lawson said, makes him look more Castleberry.
Timestamps show the changes appear to have occurred after Spriestersbach was released from the Hawaii State Hospital.
“Instead of admitting that they made a mistake they’re just trying to cover it up,” Lawson said.
In general, government officials with ties to Spriestersbach’s case have refused to comment or explain what might have caused Spriestersbach to be locked away in a mental institution as a result of mistaken identity.
Michelle Yu, spokesperson for HPD, wrote in an email that the department is “presently looking into the circumstances of Mr. Spriestersbach’s arrest and is deferring the interview request at this time.”
Matthew Dvonch, who works for Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm, responded to an interview request by saying only that the office was reviewing the Hawaii Innocence Project petition and that it would not provide comment.
Dvonch, however, told the New York Times that the allegations contained in the petition “are concerning to us.”
State Public Defender James Tabe did not respond to Civil Beat’s requests for comment.
Gary Yamashiroya, who is the special assistant to Attorney General Clare Connors, said the agency did not want to discuss the specifics of the case, but that it will be looking into the circumstances that led to Spriestersbach being identified as Castleberry, as well as any changes to the state’s criminal database that contains suspect mugshots.
Yamashiroya said he could not provide a timeline for when those reviews would be completed.
It’s hard to pinpoint where things went so wrong for Spriestersbach, who today is 50 years old.
Court and medical records indicate he’s struggled with mental illness at least since he graduated from high school in California.
His sister, Vedanta Griffith, told the Associated Press that Spriestersbach moved to Hawaii with her in 2003 when her husband, who was in the Army, was stationed in the islands. Griffith lost track of her brother, she said, when he moved to the Big Island and disappeared while continuing to struggle with his mental health.
For 16 years, she searched for him. Only after he was released from the Hawaii State Hospital in 2020 did they reconnect. They now live together in Vermont, but Griffith says her brother refuses to leave her property.
“He’s so afraid that they’re going to take him again,” she said.
Spriestersbach was homeless on Oahu when he was arrested by HPD in 2017 on an outstanding warrant for Thomas R. Castleberry.
The confusion appears to have been years in the making.
While living on Oahu, Spriestersbach had a handful of run-ins with law enforcement related to being homeless and had been cited several times for trespassing, including on school property.
During one of these incidents in 2011, Lawson said, Spriestersbach told officials he was someone else. Spriestersbach gave them the name of his grandfather — William Castleberry.
Ever since, the alias has followed Spriestersbach around, all the way up until he was arrested as Thomas Castleberry, who Lawson said is no relation.
“We still don’t know how they made the leap from William Castleberry to Thomas Castleberry,” Lawson said. “It doesn’t matter. It never should have happened.”
The arrest warrant for Thomas R. Castleberry was issued specifically for him.
But documents obtained by the Hawaii Innocence Project show that at some point between 2009, when a judge approved the warrant, and the day Spriestersbach was arrested by HPD, someone had handwritten Joshua Spriestersbach’s name underneath Castleberry’s, effectively declaring the two men one and the same.
Lawson said whoever did that may have broken the law by falsifying an official record.
“That’s a court order from a judge,” Lawson said. “You can’t just change it like that.”
Once the link was made between Spriestersbach and Castleberry, it was nearly impossible to break.
According to the Hawaii Innocence Project’s petition, which was filed by co-director Jennifer Brown, Spriestersbach did not have identification with him when he was arrested by HPD in 2017, but he provided the officer with his full name, date of birth and Social Security number. The disclosure didn’t seem to matter.
Spriestersbach was taken to the Oahu Community Correctional Center, where Brown wrote that no one bothered to check that HPD had arrested the right person.
“They took what little belongings Mr. Spriestersbach had and handed him an oversized orange jumpsuit,” she said.
The petition states that the guards at OCCC referred to Spriestersbach as Castleberry despite him telling them his name was Joshua Spriestersbach. He was in jail for nearly a month before learning that he had been arrested for a probation violation stemming from drug charges tied to Castleberry.
On June 14, 2017, Spriestersbach had his first court appearance and was represented by Nietzsche Lynn Tolan, a deputy public defender.
The petition states Spriestersbach told Tolan that he was not Castleberry and that he provided her with his full legal name, Social Security number and date of birth.
Spriestersbach also said he was not on Oahu at the time the alleged crimes were committed in 2006 because he was being treated at a mental institution on the Big Island.
Tolan ignored Spriestersbach, according to the petition, and instead asked the judge to have him evaluated by a panel of three doctors to determine whether he was mentally fit to stand trial.
Spriestersbach was transferred to the Hawaii State Hospital, where the petition states he was heavily medicated, including with doses of Haldol, an antipsychotic that “caused him to become despondent and catatonic.”
Three different doctors, Sharon Tisza, John Compton and Melissa Vargo, evaluated Spriestersbach at the hospital. He told them the same thing he had told the police, the jailers and his public defender — that he was not Thomas Castleberry and that he did not live on Oahu in 2006 when Castleberry was alleged to have committed his crimes.
“My name is Joshua Spriestersbach,” he said, according to the petition. “I have heard of none of these charges.”
Court records show that Spriestersbach was subjected to at least five separate fitness evaluations and that he was represented by a carousel of public defenders, including Jason Baker, Leslie Maloian and Jacquie Esser, who after learning of the Innocence Project’s petition described the case on social media as a “horrifying and grave injustice.”
The petition states that each time he went before a judge, his lawyers and the deputy prosecutors agreed with the doctors that he was unfit to stand trial and that he should continue to be held at the Hawaii State Hospital. Two different judges, Colette Garibaldi and Shirley Kawamura, signed off on the orders.
Kawamura also approved a request by the state to medicate Spriestersbach against his will.
“Considering the facts of this case and all the parties involved, somebody can make a good argument that Mr. Spriestersbach was the only competent one out of all whom he had contact with over the two years and eight months he was held illegally at O.C.C.C. and H.S.H.,” Brown wrote.
“Mr. Spriestersbach was more competent than H.P.D. officers who arrested and booked him, the Doctors evaluating him, H.S.H. staff, prosecutors, his numerous public defenders, and even the Court.”
Spriestersbach found his freedom on Jan. 17, 2020 after Allison Garrett, a staff psychiatrist at the Hawaii State Hospital, decided to vet his story.
According to Spriestersbach’s discharge summary, Garrett discovered that Spriestersbach was telling the truth after she ran the name he gave her through the hospital’s own record system showing that he was being treated on the Big Island at the same time Castleberry was alleged to have been committing crimes on Oahu.
The petition states that Garrett first reached out to the public defender’s office, but never received a response.
She then contacted the Attorney General’s Office, which sent an HPD detective to the hospital to compare Spriestersbach’s photo and fingerprints to that of Castleberry.
He was released two days later with 50 cents and two copies of his birth certificate, a state ID and a Social Security card, all of which listed his true identity — Joshua Spriestersbach.
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