Mistaken Identity Sends Wrong Man to Hawaii Mental Hospital, Where He Was Stuck for 2 Years

Joshua Spriestersbach was "declared delusional" when he tried repeatedly to tell officials he was not the man they were looking for, according to the Hawaii Innocence Project

Joshua Spriestersbach
Joshua Spriestersbach. Photo: Courtesy Hawai‘i Innocence Project

Joshua Spriestersbach knew that he was not Thomas Castleberry — but he claims that didn't stop officials in Hawaii from arresting him for Castleberry's alleged crimes in a gut-wrenching case that saw the wrong man trapped in custody for more than two years.

Now, Spriestersbach, 50, and his team are petitioning the court to vacate his arrests following a harrowing ordeal in which Spriestersbach was ignored, heavily medicated and forced to live in a psychiatric hospital by officials who declared him "delusional," according to a petition filed Monday by Spriestersbach and his representation, the Hawaii Innocence Project.

"We help out those individuals who've been wrongfully incarcerated and who were actually innocent," Kenneth Lawson, the legal nonprofit's co-director, tells PEOPLE. "And he's actually innocent and was wrongfully incarcerated. This needs to be fixed because no one was helping."

Spriestersbach, who struggles with a mental health disability, was homeless and waiting for food outside of a Honolulu restaurant in 2017 when he fell asleep on the sidewalk "due to heat and exhaustion," according to the petition, which was obtained by PEOPLE.

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He was eventually awoken by a Hawaii Police Department officer — and though he didn't have any identification on him, told the officer his name, date of birth and social security number under the assumption he was being arrested for violating the city's ban on sitting and lying down on public sidewalks, the petition says.

Spriestersbach's legal representation claims he was taken to the Oahu Community Correctional Center to be fingerprinted and photographed — and despite the fact that officers allegedly failed to compare the data to that of the real Castleberry, he was booked anyway for crimes committed by Castleberry in 2006.

The petition says that it took Spriestersbach one month to learn that he'd been arrested for Castleberry's alleged probation violation for charges including unauthorized control of propelled vehicle, promoting a dangerous drug in the first degree and unlawful use of drug paraphernalia — and that jail guards repeatedly ignored his requests to call him by his real name.

A public defender listed for Castleberry declined to comment when contacted by the Associated Press. In an attempt to reach Castleberry, PEOPLE left a message with Spring Creek Correctional Center, where he's currently serving time, the AP reported.

Hawaii Public Defender James Tabe and a spokesperson for the State Department of Health, which runs the Hawaii State Hospital, did not immediately respond to PEOPLE's request for comment.

The petition calls the situation a "gross miscarriage of justice" among not just the police department, but the Honolulu Office of the Public Defender, who had represented Castleberry since 2006 but still requested the court order a panel of doctors to evaluate Spriestersbach and his "mental fitness" after he insisted he was not Castleberry, and the Attorney General and the Hawaii State Mental Hospital, the latter of which also ignored the man's protests.

At the hospital, Spriestersbach was forced to attend group sessions for illegal drug users, despite having no record of drug abuse, and when he fought back, was "given doses of anti-psychotic medications, including Haldol, which caused him to become despondent and catatonic," the petition claims.

"The more Mr. Spriestersbach vocalized his innocence in 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," the document reads.

He was eventually deemed not competent to stand trial multiple times because he repeatedly denied the charges against him, and also repeatedly told the doctors evaluating him that he was not Castleberry, the petition says.

By November 2019, a treatment team had allegedly obtained Spriestersbach's birth certificate — but despite new reports from psychiatrists that verified his identity, he was once again determined unfit to stand trial one month later.

Eventually — after a detective verified fingerprints and photographs and it was determined that the real Castleberry had been in prison in Alaska since 2016 — Spriestersbach was released from the hospital in January 2020 after two years and eight months, "when it was determined that he had been telling the truth the entire time," the petition says.

Joshua Spriestersbach
Joshua Spriestersbach. Courtesy Hawai‘i Innocence Project

"He's doing a lot better now, but that trauma that comes with being locked up and especially against your will and be forced to take medications and not have anybody listen to you... it's that fear," Lawson says.

The petition also claims that hospital doctors requested and reviewed prior treatment records possibly as early as 2018, and if they'd cross-referenced the dates as Spriestersbach had requested, would have realized based on the dates the crimes were committed that it would have been impossible for him to have been the culprit.

Once it was confirmed that Spriestersbach was not Castleberry, officials allegedly held a "secret meeting" of which there is no court record or public court recording, something the petition calls "troubling."

"Instead of making a record that would prevent future injustice from happening again to Mr. Spriestersbach, they have attempted to sweep their mistakes under the rug, to the continued detriment of Mr. Spriestersbach," it states. "Perhaps they did so with the hope that because Mr. Spriestersbach has a mental health disability no one would believe what had happened to him or that he would not be competent enough to seek redress for what happened to him. Without the record being corrected and a finding of actual innocence, Mr. Spriestersbach can still be arrested again for Thomas Castleberry's crimes, which this miscarriage of justice in Mr. Spriestersbach's case ongoing."

The petition calls for the arrest to be vacated, as well as for the records to be corrected and an expedited hearing.

Spriestersbach is now living with his sister, Vedanta Griffith, in Vermont, though she told the AP that her brother refuses to leave the 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.' So they used that as saying he was delusional, as justification for keeping him," she said. "And then when light is shown on it, what do they do? They don't even put it on the record. They don't make it part of the case. And then they don't come to him and say, 'We are so sorry' or, how about even 'Gee, this wasn't you. You were right all along.'"

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