Suit Is Settled in Case of Man Wrongly Held

April 13, 2001

The State of New York will pay $3.25 million to settle a lawsuit filed on behalf of a mentally ill homeless man whose arrest in Los Angeles and bungled identification by the authorities led to his mistaken two-year imprisonment in New York, lawyers said yesterday.

The case highlighted the flaws in the handling of inmates as they enter the state prison system, particularly mentally ill prisoners who are not always able to speak for themselves.

As part of the settlement, which must be approved by a Federal District Court judge in Manhattan, New York officials have also written a letter of apology to the victim, Kerry Sanders, 34, and his mother, who conducted a futile two-year search for her son after his disappearance from the streets of Los Angeles in 1993.

Mr. Sanders, who had no criminal record, was misidentified by the authorities as a fugitive drug dealer from New York, Robert Sanders, with the same birth date. The authorities did not compare fingerprints and photographs, and ignored Mr. Sanders's repeated assertions that his name was not Robert, contending that his claims were signs of mental illness. Mr. Sanders was finally released in 1995, after the arrest of the real fugitive in Cleveland.

"I would like to apologize for Mr. Sanders's wrongful incarceration based upon the mistaken belief that he was someone else," wrote Glenn S. Goord, the state commissioner of correctional services, in a letter dated yesterday.

Mr. Goord also apologized to Mr. Sanders's mother, Mary Sanders Lee, for the "loss of her son's companionship during that time."

After her son's disappearance, Ms. Lee undertook an arduous and ultimately fruitless search for her son through the gang- infested streets of South Central Los Angeles, interviewing shopkeepers, homeless people and gang members.

Mr. Sanders, who has schizophrenia and is now living in a group home in Los Angeles, said in a brief telephone interview that he was gratified by the settlement.

"I heard about it," he said. "I feel all right about it."

His mother, who is also his legal guardian, added: "New York did my son injustice, and we got our justice. I don't think it should go any farther than that."

Mr. Goord also wrote in the letter, "Although it cannot alleviate the harm you have suffered, I hope it is at least of some comfort to you to know that at my direction, a series of improvements have been made in our identification procedures."

He cited a new policy of immediately fingerprinting all escapees who have been recaptured, and matching those prints against the originals; ordering correctional officers who pick up prisoners in other states to carry the original fingerprint identification cards; and installing computer- based scanners in prisons so fingerprint checks can be made quickly.

State officials said no disciplinary action had been taken against any prison employees who were involved in Mr. Sanders's case at Green Haven, the maximum-security prison in Stormville, N.Y.

A correctional services spokesman, James B. Flateau, said: "The commissioner's feeling was that as unfortunate as the outcome was, there was no venality on the part of any employees. It was just an incredible confluence of events that we had never before seen happen."

One of Mr. Sanders's lawyers, Benjamin Schonbrun of Los Angeles, said he was astonished by the lack of disciplinary action or reprimands.

"It tells me that the policy makers at the New York State Department of Correctional Services are doing what bureaucrats always do, which is try to resolve an embarrassing situation for them without any accountability," Mr. Schonbrun said.

An article in The New York Times Magazine last year detailed Mr. Sanders's traumatic experience, how the state battled a lawsuit filed on his behalf, and the consistent lack of sympathy to his protests.

One prison therapist has said Mr. Sanders told him as many as 75 times, "I don't know why I'm here." The therapist told him to write to the prison superintendent.

A prison psychiatrist who treated Mr. Sanders said that given his mental problems and homelessness, he was better off in prison. "He should say, `Thank you, for two years you guys treated me very nicely,' " the psychiatrist, Dr. Edward Y. Chung, said in a deposition.

(Dr. Chung still practices in the system, though not at Green Haven, a spokesman said.)

Told of the settlement, Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, a prison monitoring group, said, "It's definitely a worst-case kind of scenario, and at the same time it reflects the lack of attention and lack of resources that the state devotes to prison mental health services."

Dr. Stuart Grassian, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist, said that falsely imprisoning Mr. Sanders, already a victim of schizophrenia, probably exacerbated his fragile mental state. "That's the horrible thing about doing this kind of thing to someone so vulnerable," Dr. Grassian said.