St. Louis task force seeks to reduce wrongful incarcerations

Thursday, February 2, 2012 | 1:39 p.m. CST

ST. LOUIS — St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay has asked a new task force to develop ways to prevent wrongful incarcerations after a report by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch found several cases in which a person was charged and jailed based on misidentification.

The city's chief performance officer, Eddie Roth, told the Post-Dispatch that last month's report brought the problem into sharp focus.

Slay has appointed a task force called the Prisoner Identification Verification and Optimization Team, which will include prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, law enforcement and corrections staff.

The St. Louis Circuit Court processes about 2,000 cases each year. How many cases are tainted is unknown, but the newspaper said it easily found four cases in which people were charged based on misidentification. Two remained jailed for months.

"Any time these things happen, it's a problem for the system and something that requires focused, sustained attention," said Roth, a former Board of Police Commissioners president as well as a former editorial writer for the Post-Dispatch.

The Post-Dispatch said Dwayne A. Jackson spent a month in jail after his arrest in 2010 by police who were looking for someone with the same name. He was picked up again a year later on the same mistake and spent two months behind bars.

Cedric M. Wright was arrested in August by police. They thought he was a man wanted on multiple warrants named Corey D. Leonard. Wright was jailed for two months, even though he documented his identity and despite the fact that Leonard was already locked up.

Wright filed suit against police, jail and sheriff's officials. His attorney, James Hacking III, said he was cautiously optimistic about the new effort.

"I wish it was in place long ago," Hacking said. "It might have prevented what happened to Cedric."

The American Civil Liberties Union in Denver said it found 503 wrongful incarcerations in Denver from 2002 to 2009. Roth has sought Denver's advice on how it addressed the problem. He said the task force findings in St. Louis will be made public.

"It's complicated and it's hard, but I think it's attainable and we need to figure it out," Roth said.

St. Louis police and prosecutors have blamed the use of aliases in three of the cases uncovered by the Post-Dispatch, though not necessarily the alias of the person improperly held.

Police said the Dwayne Jackson they arrested has used 22 aliases, nine Social Security numbers and three birth dates. The state agency that issued the warrant did not include fingerprints or other identifying information.

"It's a much more complex issue than the public realizes," St. Louis Police Maj. Lawrence O'Toole said. "We're not trying to cast blame or deflect it, but there are things that need to be done and I hope these are things that will come out of this task force."

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