At least 15 people in Atlanta and Fulton County’s justice system suspected that the wrong person was being held in the scalding of Angelo Boyd in a fit of jealousy.
The victim told authorities his attacker was still on the street. Physical descriptions differed. Addresses differed. The last names differed. Yet no one tried to find out whether Teresa Culpepper and Teresa Gilbert were different people.
Culpepper spent 53 days in jail on charges in the attack on a man she did not know. Her treatment appalled the judge who eventually freed her, but the image that emerges in depositions just released in her lawsuit reveal a system indifferent or perhaps desensitized because people lie to the authorities so frequently they say the truth can no longer be recognized. One employee in the DA’s office reported laughing when he learned about the wrongful arrest through the news media.
Each person who touched Culpepper’s case — from her arrest to her appearance in court to enter a plea — shrugged off red flags, thinking the next person down the line would sort out the discrepancies.
“Nobody cared,” said Ashleigh Merchant, Culpepper’s attorney in the lawsuit against the Atlanta Police Department, the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office and some individuals. “It was like check the box. Move it along. Check the box. Move it along. … Nobody takes any responsibility for anything.”
District Attorney Paul Howard strongly disagrees.
In their depositions, the police and staff from the District Attorney’s Office explained why they ignored Culpepper’s insistence that they had the wrong person. It’s something they hear often.
“You’re not focusing on all of that ID stuff,” Deputy District Attorney Rebecca Keel said in her deposition, “because your background knowledge is that there ain’t nobody out there who doesn’t give us a fake name, fake address, fake phone numbers. I mean fake, fake, fake, fake.”
The results had a real and devastating impact on Culpepper. While in jail, she was unable to fight off eviction from her home. Thieves took all her possessions after they had been dumped on a sidewalk.
Gilbert, in contrast, spent no time in jail, even after pleading guilty to pouring boiling water on her boyfriend, Boyd. She got probation.
The depositions recount conversations and emails exchanged that questioned Culpepper’s identity.
Still, no one did anything.
Culpepper’s journey began Aug. 21, 2011, with Atlanta police officer Jaidon Codrington. He was dispatched that morning to Culpepper’s boardinghouse on Hawkins Street after she reported that her boyfriend had taken her truck. He didn’t take a report, but he told her a lookout for the truck would be broadcast.
Later that day Codrington was told to pick up Gilbert on Ashby Circle. He told the dispatcher he had been to that address already.
Codrington went to Culpepper’s home and arrested her.
He called Stephen Putnam, the assistant district attorney on duty in the complaint room that Sunday, to talk about the charges.
Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard created the complaint room more than a decade ago as a way to get his office involved at the time of the arrest instead of after charges have been brought. The idea was to discuss charges and any evidence that needed to be collected. Keel is the supervisor over the complaint room.
Putnam said in his deposition that he and the officer discussed differences. The physical descriptions didn’t match. The addresses were different. And, of course, the names were different.
Also, the paralegal who pulled Gilbert’s criminal history pointed out discrepancies.
Codrington insisted, however, that he had the correct person in the back seat of his patrol car.
“Aliases are very common,” Putnam said, “especially with felony defendants.”
Boyd, the victim of the attack, was not shown a photograph of Culpepper to confirm that the correct person was in custody. It was after they knew Culpepper was the wrong person that the police showed Boyd a photo of Gilbert.
At least two police supervisors and three supervisors in the complaint room reviewed the police report with the conflicting information.
Five days after Culpepper’s arrest, Aug. 25, 2011, public defender Stanley Constant sent an email to Assistant District Attorney Melanie Davis, then a supervisor but now no longer with the office, saying that the wrong person may have been in custody. “The fact that the defendant has never used the name GILBERT is minor compared to the fact that (she) doesn’t have a boyfriend with the name Angelo Boyd,” he wrote.
The email was forwarded to a prosecutor who handles cases before the grand jury. Assistant District Attorney Jill Hollander suggested having an investigator from the DA’s office show a photo of Culpepper to Boyd, but that task was never assigned.
Assistant District Attorney Waverly Settles, after reviewing the file with notes about the problems with identity, presented Culpepper’s case to a grand jury. She was indicted Sept. 2, 2011, on charges of felony aggravated battery and misdemeanor simple battery
A few days later, Boyd called the victim liaison in the DA’s office, Wesley Vann, to complain that Gilbert was on the street and the wrong person was apparently in jail. Vann said he put a note in the file but didn’t tell anyone about the call. He said in his deposition that he “chuckled” when he saw news accounts of Culpepper’s wrongful arrest.
She remained in jail.
On Oct. 6, 2011, Culpepper appeared in court to enter a plea. Her attorney called Boyd to court, and he again said Culpepper was not his attacker.
Fulton Judge Henry Newkirk dismissed the aggravated battery charge and apologized to Culpepper, telling her, “We’ll get you out as soon as possible today.”
Six days later, Culpepper was finally released. Prosecutors had forgotten to drop the misdemeanor charge, and the jail would not release her until that was resolved.
“In a perfect world I would expect (prosecutors) to do … whatever is possible to try to make sure that this didn’t happen,” Howard said in his deposition. “But in this case there were some factors which allowed them to make decisions that when you look back in retrospect you might say they could have decided to do something different.”
But still, Howard said in an email Friday, the complaint room is successful and Culpepper is the only person he knows who has been misidentified and arrested.
Said Howard, “We believe our record of achievement and accuracy with respect to the complaint room process is so remarkable, (Culpepper being the only inmate in such circumstances in nine years) there is no reason that it should change.”