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Wrongfully Imprisoned D.C. Disabled Man Settles Suit For $1.74 Million

by Michael Rigby

The District of Columbia and a private medical provider have agreed to pay $1.74 million to Joseph Heard, a deaf, mute, and mentally disabled man who was wrongfully imprisoned in the D.C. jail for nearly two years.

Heard's ordeal [originally reported in PLN, April 2002] began in November 1998 when he was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of unlawful entry. Several months later Heard was committed to St. Elizabeth's Hospital and eventually declared mentally incompetent to stand trial. In October 1999, a Superior Court judge dismissed the charge and ordered him freed.

Instead, Heard was taken to the jail because computer records mistakenly indicated that he had an outstanding charge in a separate case. That charge too had been dismissed, a jail records officer later learned, but the paperwork authorizing his release was never received.

Heard, who had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, remained at the jail until August 13, 2001. The error came to light after jail staff were unable to locate his records. Those 670 days were tortuous for Heard. He received no visits from family, friends, or attorneys, and often scrawled the word innocent" on scraps of paper. Heard tried to inform jail staff, through another prisoner, that his imprisonment was a big mistake, but guards and mental health workers ignored him.

After his release, Heard sued the District and the jail's private medical provider, the Center for Correctional Health and Policy Studies, alleging they violated his civil rights by failing to provide him a way to communicate with medical staff.

Under the terms of the settlement, which was approved by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on August 4, 2005, the Center will pay $640,000, with the District paying $1,100,000.00. The District also agreed to pay reasonable attorney's fees and costs, but the exact amount is in dispute. (The settlement is on PLN's website at

Heard's attorneys asked for $1,103,697.00 in legal fees plus $71,013.36 in costs, which the District contested. The costs would have been much lower if the District had not prolonged the case, said Heard's attorneys. It will be left up to the court to determine the appropriate amount. As we go to press the court has not ruled on the fee motion.

One of the attorneys, John Moustakas, said the District repeatedly refused to provide relevant records and stalled in discussing a settlement amount. They locked him up illegally and unconstitutionally for two years," said Moustakas. It's an obvious case of false imprisonment and violation of his civil rights. But still, the District fought us and played around with us for two years.

Heard, now 45, lives with his sister, Sandy Hayes, in Orlando, Florida. Because of his ordeal, Heard has refused to return to Washington except for necessary meetings with his attorneys. "I'm glad they finally came to a settlement," said Hayes. "Hopefully, this will improve his life and he'll forget about those two years they took from him." See: Heard v. Government of the District of Columbia, USDC D DC, Case No. 1:02-CV-00296.

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Related legal case

Heard v. Government of the District of Columbia,