Name Is Not Robert
sloppy police work, a hands-off justice system and an
prison turned one man named Sanders into another.
BENJAMIN WEISER Photographs By OZIER MUHAMMAD
Nearly every day inside Green Haven prison in Stormville,
the 30-foot-high concrete walls and 12 watchtowers, within the endless
gray corridors and tiers of windowless cells, the inmate Robert Sanders
asked the same question: Why am I here?
He asked the guards in the main unit of the
where he spent most of his time alone in Cell No. 22 on the third
crying and praying and drinking too much coffee. He asked the doctors,
social workers and nurses in the psychiatric unit, where he was often
to deal with the voices in his head.
<>To the staff members, his questions were evidence of his
"He becomes delusional," they wrote in his chart. "He has bizarre
The prisoner had a habit of picking cigarette butts up off the floor,
not of showering. Everyone complained that he gave off an unbearable
and the red-hooded sweatshirt he habitually wore was caked with food
dirt. They complained at night, too, when his chattering echoed down
narrow hall of A Block. The psychiatric team urged him to improve his
and attend classes in "daily living skills." He was given 15 minutes of
weekly therapy and heavy doses of Haldol, an antipsychotic drug that
his body rigid and his emotions flat. But his bewilderment grew. "Pt.
he has no idea why the plane took him to N.Y.," a nurse wrote in
He also "does
not know what crime he did and his name is not Robert."
Benjamin Weiser is a Metro
reporter for The New
Prison records showed that Robert Sanders was a career
New York who tried to kill a man over cocaine in 1990 and escaped three
years later while on work release at a minimum-security prison in the
Within months, he was recaptured and sent to Green Haven, a virtual
that houses the state's only execution chamber and 2,194 of its most
There, the inmate told the staff about his life in Los
Angeles. He talked
about his mother, Mary, who had given birth to eight children before
had her youngest child, a boy named Kerry. He knew a lot about
And he remembered spending time at a mental hospital in Los Angeles
he was sick. But he could not understand why he was in prison or why
was calling him Robert.
"He looks somewhat confused," wrote Dr. Edward Y. Chung,
who oversaw the inmate's care, "and the response to the questioning is
illogical." Harold Roberson, a therapist in the psychiatric unit,
similar observations. "He has on several occasions made statements that
would indicate delusional thinking," Roberson wrote in the chart. "He
we are holding him here because he committed no crimes."
The inmate's assertion might well have seemed implausible,
extensive system of checks and safeguards used in law enforcement to
that one person is not mistaken for another. There is a national
of fingerprints and photographs, which are taken when people are
there are lawyers and judges to protect and administer justice; and
are prison staffs with files on the medical, personal and criminal
of inmates. The United States has had its share of wrongly convicted
but the idea that a man who had never even been convicted was behind
seemed inconceivable. That a prison did not know whom it had in custody
would mean it had failed the most basic test of its competence and
So Sanders was shuttled from his cell to the psychiatric
unit and back
to his cell again. The staff continued to give him Haldol. He continued
to sink deeper into depression and invisibility. Weeks, months and
two years passed as Mary Sanders Lee searched for her youngest son in
streets of Los Angeles. But she would never find him there.
Kerry Sanders was in Green Haven prison in Stormville,
time for a man named Robert.
Kerry Sanders had a sweet disposition, but he was not
someone who had
much luck in life. Being born on the particular day of June 25, 1966,
turn out to be his greatest misfortune. He had grown up in the
of South-Central Los Angeles, and by the time he was 27, he had been in
and out of mental hospitals for seven years, his body and spirit losing
out to the voices in his head. He was found to be suffering from
schizophrenia, and like many people with the disease, he felt the
and desperation that came with going on and off his medication.
In Mary Lee's search for her son, she
wore the colors
of the gangs whose territory she passed through.
When Sanders was not in the hospital, he stayed with his
mother or one
of his sisters. When his demons became too great, he would leave for
streets. On the morning of Oct. 5, 1993, he was sleeping on a bench
the Los Angeles County-University of Southern California Medical Center
when Richard S. Bentley, a county police officer patrolling the
grounds, approached him.
"What's up?" asked Sanders, who was wearing a black
T-shirt and jeans
and had just opened his eyes.
Officer Bentley's police report shows that he asked
Sanders if he was
all right or needed medical assistance.
"Of course I'm all right," Sanders replied. "I was just
There was a bandage on his leg, and he said he had been
treated at the
hospital earlier that night. He told the officer he was homeless and
him hospital identification, which gave his name, Kerry Sanders, and
of birth. The officer asked whether he had "any business" at the
"No, sir," Sanders answered.
Bentley then cited Sanders for trespassing and radioed the
to a police dispatcher. Up came two warrants under the name Sanders
the birth date of June 25, 1966. One was for Kerry Sanders, for failing
to appear at a hearing over a jaywalking ticket in Los Angeles. The
was for Robert Sanders, an escaped felon from New York; it advised
The warrants listed each man as African-American. Robert
described as 5 foot 8, 175 pounds and a native of New York City. He had
scars on both arms. Kerry Sanders was described as 5 foot 6 and 155
He had one scar on his left arm.
Bentley said in a recent interview that when he asked
Sanders if he
used any other names, he responded, "Yes -- Terry and Robert." "I asked
him whether he was the Robert Sanders they were looking for in New
Bentley said, "and he looked me straight in the eye and said, 'Yes, I
But in his police report, Bentley listed only "Terry" under nicknames
made no mention of the exchange about New York.
he's got to be somewhere, kidnapped,' his mother said. 'Somebody got
somewhere locked up, and he can't get to me.'
Bentley told his superiors that he suspected Kerry Sanders
was the fugitive
Robert Sanders. The case was turned over to the Los Angeles Police
and at 11:56 a.m. Kerry Sanders was arrested and booked as Robert
The booking sheet included Kerry's physical characteristics -- his
and weight, his right thumb print, the scar on his left arm -- and
birthplace and fugitive warrant number.
Within 24 hours, Kerry Sanders's extradition was approved.
weeks, he was in the New York State correctional system, answering to
name Robert as well as his own, a confused response that would have
A man incapable of making his own breaks, Sanders never
got one along
the way. In Los Angeles, he was not given the required screening that
have revealed his poor mental state. Police and corrections officials
Los Angeles and New York never noticed that the photographs of the two
men did not match -- nor that Robert had multiple tattoos, while Kerry
had only a small one on his hand. No one saw that the jaywalking ticket
Kerry Sanders received in Los Angeles on July 14, 1993, was issued
Robert Sanders was serving a three-to-nine-year prison term more than
No one ever compared the two men's fingerprints and
matched them through
the vast national computer database. Had they been checked, a routine
enforcement practice when a felony suspect is apprehended, it could
taken just hours to show that Kerry was the wrong man.
Instead, he found himself in the Municipal Court of Los
next day, stuck in a holding tank with dozens of other prisoners
hearings. He was assigned a deputy public defender, Stanley I. Efron,
met briefly with him, encouraging him not to fight extradition. Efron
in an interview that he examined the warrant and noticed the physical
between the two men. But he found them to be innocuous, so he asked his
client whether he was Robert Sanders from New York. "Yes," Kerry
Efron explained that if he fought extradition, he would only prolong
stay in the county jail before being returned to New York anyway. He
Kerry agreed to sign a waiver.
In his own records, the public defender summarized his
Kerry Sanders this way: "Admits ID. Can't bail. Wants to waive." Efron
left blank the other sections on the form for information about the
family, pending cases, prior record and financial status. Efron, 58,
worked for 30 years in the public defender's office, said Kerry
all the questions, and I was convinced he was the guy."
It was one of four extradition cases the public defender
morning, and he remembered Kerry as being subdued and slow. "I had to
things to him more than once," Efron recalled. But he said Kerry's
did not set off any alarm bells, nor did the events that followed.
Kerry's fragile grasp on reality grew
even weaker in
When Efron gave Kerry copies of the waiver, which began,
Sanders, do hereby freely and voluntarily state that I am the identical
Robert Sanders," he signed them "Kerry Sanders" and drew doodles all
one copy. The case then moved to Judge Abraham A. Khan, who stopped the
proceeding after Kerry said he hadn't even read the form.
"Did you sign it?" Judge Khan asked.
"Yeah," Kerry replied.
"Why did you sign it?"
"Because they told me to sign it."
Khan had the public defender review the form again with
Within minutes, both said it had been read and understood. "The court
satisfied," Khan said, moving on.
Kerry's fate now belonged to New York, and on Oct. 20,
Sgt. Joseph H.
Badstein Jr. and another state correctional officer picked up their
in Los Angeles. It was raining late that night when Kerry, shackled in
leg irons, handcuffs, a waist chain and black lockbox, arrived with the
two officers at the Downstate Correctional Facility in Fishkill, N.Y.,
a processing center for inmates. The watch commander wrote in his
"11:04 p.m. Received absconder from Fulton C.F. Sanders, Robert #90 A
He was issued an inmate ID card, which he signed "Kerry Sanders." The
department typed "Kerry Sanders" into the name line as well. He was
to the infirmary, given a delousing shower and examined by a nurse,
A. Rohling. Within 15 minutes, she concluded that he might be mentally
ill. Sanders "claims past psych history," Rohling wrote. He had been
Haldol, an antipsychotic drug, and Cogentin, which was given to
the physical side effects of Haldol. "Last dose five months ago," she
A social worker, Michelyne Duvivier, who examined him the
checked the records on Robert Sanders, who was in prison five months
and found no history of mental illness. "No records found of psych in
she wrote. The significance went unnoticed.
Over the next 12 weeks, Kerry remained in the
at Downstate, one of 35,801 inmates who entered the New York State
system in 1993. Withdrawn and quiet, he paced back and forth in the
recreation area. He giddily said he had "special powers," but they were
"good powers" he used to help others. One morning he flooded his cell
water. "He tried to 'wash his clothing' in the toilet," the chart says.
"Sees nothing unusual about this behavior." He also repeatedly asked
he was locked up, pleading with one nurse, "When can I go home?" The
later wrote that he was still confused about where he was, even
"disbelief that this was a prison."
At the end of December, Kerry was transferred to Green
Haven, a maximum-security
prison about 60 miles north of Manhattan. Given that Robert Sanders had
absconded from a minimum-security site, it was determined that he would
require a more secure location. The New York authorities, now believing
they had their man, pulled Robert Sanders's fugitive warrant from the
The youngest of nine children, kerry sanders had a
with his mother, Mary Sanders Lee. When she dropped him off at
school, the teachers told her that she might as well stay, too, because
her son would chase after her anyway. When Kerry and his friends
through the streets on their bikes, she followed them in her car. "He
the leader of all devilment," Lee said of her rambunctious son. "He was
a good little boy."
Kerry's father, John Sanders, a gas-station attendant in
Lee's second husband. She has been married three times and widowed just
as many, and for long periods struggled financially to support her nine
As a young child, Kerry had a healthy mind and body, and
remembers the little boy who played with his hamster and his dog and
to read. "He was a whiz in books," said his sister Diane, who is three
years older than Kerry and used to get help from him with her homework.
But as Kerry got older, his family life became increasingly turbulent.
His father died when he was a teenager. His brother Carl was killed in
a police shooting. Two other brothers were in and out of jail.
medication, free meal, food, everything,' one of Kerry's prison doctors
said. 'He should say, "Thank you, for two years you guys treated me
Mary Lee hoped Kerry would go to college like another son,
who became a music professor. But her youngest child was not
"He wasn't going to go to no college," she said. "I wasn't going to
no professor out of him."
After high school, Kerry enlisted in the Job Corps in San
Calif., where he learned carpentry skills and fell in love with a girl
named Kim, whose name he had tattooed on the back of his right hand.
had a baby, a daughter. But Kim's parents didn't approve of him and
took mother and child away.
By the summer of 1986, when Kerry was 20, psychological
to manifest themselves. He told doctors at one psychiatric ward that he
had been hearing voices for five years. "He kept the voices a secret
one month ago, when they became intolerable," a doctor wrote. "The
now tell him to kill himself, and he feels he may lose control." The
diagnosed schizophrenia and chronic paranoia and put him on
Over the next six years, Kerry floated among hospitals,
and the homes of family members, struggling with the hallucinations and
delusions, the disorganized speech and erratic behavior, caused by his
illness. He could be stubborn and frightening and difficult to control.
"Every once in a while he would at least come home to eat," said a
Linda Evans. "We'd have to hold him down to get a shower."
Mary Lee welcomed her son at the door when he showed up
and prayed when
he left. She took him to psychiatrists and to hospitals. She befriended
the owners of delicatessens, doughnut shops and check-cashing stores on
the streets where Kerry roamed, asking them to keep an eye out for her
son. And she tried to focus on the better times: Kerry, when stabilized
on medication, would dance with his niece and watch his baby cousin and
spend hours at his mother's home, reading magazines and mysteries and
on carpentry. He promised to build her a house someday. "I told him, 'I
be so old I won't be able to sit down in it,"' Lee recalled. "He said,
'Momma, you don't know what I'll do for you, so hush."'
In the summer of 1993, Kerry was once again off his
medication and living
on the streets, and he was out of touch with his family for weeks at a
time. On July 14, the police stopped him for crossing against a red
He was issued a ticket for jaywalking but did not appear for a hearing.
A misdemeanor warrant was issued for his arrest and entered in the
By late fall, Lee became alarmed when she still hadn't
heard from Kerry
and he hadn't shown up to get his monthly disability check. She said
took the uncashed check to the Social Security office, telling a clerk
that she had no idea where her son had gone.
On Dec. 29, 1993, Kerry Sanders arrived at Green Haven, a
compound of weathered concrete buildings on 928 acres of Dutchess
farmland. Low-rising corridors connect each of its nine cellblocks like
a maze, giving boundary to several grassy prison yards and numerous
Sanders was constantly being moved between his cell and
ward. He was a stocky man, soft-fleshed and gentle, and his round face
made him look much younger than his 27 years. From the beginning, he
a peculiarity to the staff and other inmates -- silent, withdrawn,
Soon after his arrival, Sanders met Dr. Chung, the
would supervise his care. The prisoner was cooperative but had
Chung wrote in the chart. His posture was rigid, his gait not
"He looks like a zombie," the doctor noted, ordering that Kerry remain
on Haldol and stay in the psychiatric unit "for closer observation."
On Jan. 3, 1994, Sanders attended his first weekly session
mental health team assigned to his case. A nurse, Silvia Koola, wrote
his chart that he "observed that he was confused and does not know why
he is in New York prison; even his homeland is Los Angeles." She added,
"He also was telling he does not know what crime he did and his name is
In mid-January, Sanders was transferred to the third tier
of A Block,
one of several cramped cellblocks on the west side of the compound,
the psychiatric facility, a prison yard and the mess hall. At times,
grayness of the place was consumed by its own monotonous noise, of bars
clanging, of inmates being led through the corridors, of guards yelling
out orders and counting the jumpsuited men in their cells.
It was a world in which Sanders feared to be alone but was
of being with others. He spent most of his time in his cell, making
trips to the yard to smoke, to watch television or to play dominos or
His counselors remarked that he befriended no one and that they could
get him to participate in group activities like the video club or table
games. "He has a psychiatric disorder," a social worker, Donald L.
noted. "He needs a supportive environment."
The staff listened to him talk about his family, his
his stays in mental hospitals in California. They wrote it all down,
None of it matched the information the prison system had on Robert
but no one noticed anyway.
Chung continued to see Kerry regularly, usually once a
month, in his
office in the psychiatric unit. The doctor reported after each session
that the patient was "doing well." Other mental health workers
a grimmer picture.
On the evening of July 7, 1994, a guard found a frightened
bizarrely in his cell and escorted him to the psychiatric unit. "He
somewhat confused," wrote Dr. Stanley Skollar, the psychiatrist on
"He is willing to accept medication but indicates that because of this
'fright' he didn't sleep last night and 'will not sleep tonight.' We
give him his Haldol."
On Aug. 5, Chung wrote in his notes that Sanders said he
the doctor also observed that Sanders was "doing well" in his daily
That month, Hanson, the social worker, noted that Sanders
poorly in his academic classes. Harold Roberson, the recreational
wrote that Sanders was depressed and tired. "Client continues to feel
we are holding him here," he added, "often asking when are we going to
let him go home."
On Sept. 16, Chung wrote that Sanders no longer believed
he was pregnant
and that he was doing better in his classes. "He sleeps well and eats
One week later, on Sept. 23, Roberson observed Sanders to
voices and talking to himself. That same day, Chung noted that he was
and laughing inappropriately. He said he was 24 years old, even though
he was 28. "He is doing well," the doctor wrote.
On Oct. 20, 1994, as Sanders's first year in prison ended,
wrote that the prisoner was still hearing voices and complaining, "They
won't let me go home."
Mary Lee tied a handkerchief around her head and set out
by bus and
then foot to search the streets of South-Central where she knew Kerry
to hang out: Florence, Hoover, Figueroa. She had been looking for her
for months, knocking on doors, going in and out of stores and showing
photograph to as many people as she could. Her road map, she said, was
"wherever you think his mind would think to take him."
The blocks, many of them burned out and deserted, the
remnants of the
Rodney King rioting in 1992, were controlled by rival gangs, and Lee,
and practical, did not hesitate to rely on them to help her on her way.
When she finished on one block, gang members guided her to the next
whistling loudly as they passed her into new territory. She changed the
handkerchief around her head to match the next gang's colors and kept
The search was exhausting. One day, dispirited, she found
encouraged by a young boy who walked alongside her. "Mary Mother, she
crying like you when Jesus was missing them three years," he told her.
"So you crying about your son? What about Jesus, who died for us?"
It was "the beautifulest thing that I ever heard a young
boy tell me
in my life," said Lee, the granddaughter of a Baptist minister. "I
did step fast then, when that child told me that."
She felt driven to find her son, she said, despite the
family members that her search was futile. Some of her children
that she hold a memorial service for Kerry and grew concerned when she
said she could hear his voice. "Round by dusk, dark, I could hear him
Lee explained. "I could hear the sound of keys, the rattling of keys. I
kept telling them: 'Well, he's got to be somewhere, kidnapped. Somebody
got him somewhere locked up, and he can't get to me. I keep hearing him
say, 'Momma,' and I know I'm not going crazy."
She combed the parks, skid row and hospitals and pleaded
with the homeless.
She sent Kerry's picture to the Sally Jessy Raphael show after seeing a
program about missing family members. And she forced herself to make
to the county morgue, where she asked about the latest "John Doe"
"I didn't have it in my heart that my son was dead," Lee said. "If he's
dead, I'm dead."
She became a regular at the police station in her
out officers who patrolled the streets and knew her son. When she
at the station house, she was phoning the officers there to see if
was any news. "Did you pick him up or anything?" she asked them. "I
I'll find him 'fore you do."
When Kerry Sanders arrived at Green Haven, his hold on
reality was faint
and fragile: he knew his name, he knew details about his family and
in Los Angeles and he remembered his time in the Job Corps. By the fall
of 1994, as he entered his second year in the prison, that thread of
was all but vanished. As the voices in his head grew louder, so did his
chattering. "He said he was aware of it and it will not happen again,"
Hanson wrote after other prisoners complained that Sanders was keeping
them up at night. As the months dragged on, so did Sanders's solitary
"He rarely comes to staff to complain about anything except, 'When am I
going to be let out of here?"' Roberson observed on Nov. 23, 1994.
There was a widespread view among the staff that Sanders's
did not need to be investigated. Juan Villalba, a correctional officer
assigned to inmates with psychiatric problems, would later say that
came to him at least once a week, asking: "Mr. Poncho, when they going
to let me go? I didn't do nothing." Villalba, who said he heard such
from many prisoners, humored Sanders, saying he would be released "one
of these days."
Michael S. Rassin, another recreational therapist, would
acknowledge that Sanders possibly said to him as many as 75 times, "I
know why I'm here." Rassin told him to write to the superintendent.
At the start of 1995, Sanders's questioning became more
he grew more desperate. The psychiatric chart shows:
JANUARY: Admits he hears voices. States he is depressed
because he is
in prison and there is nothing he can do about it.
MARCH: Says we are holding him here because he committed
Will be encouraged to come to the staff and talk when he feels he has a
Chung said in a recent interview that he saw his job as
limited to treating
the patient's psychotic symptoms, not exploring his claims of wrongful
imprisonment. "Not my responsibility," he said.
Chung was the only employee at Green Haven who agreed to
for this article. At 71, he is a veteran of the state system, having
10 years at Green Haven before recently moving to another prison. Born
in North Korea, he escaped at the age of 15 to the South, where he went
on to attend medical school. In 1977, he moved to the United States and
completed a residency in psychiatry.
At Green Haven, he said he saw 50 to 75 patients a week
and did not
remember the Sanders case specifically, but after reviewing a copy of
handwritten notes in the chart, he confirmed his participation. Chung
that many prisoners made claims of innocence: "Ninety-nine percent of
deny that they are criminals." He said some of his patients "claim they
came from heaven, and some of those, that they are Jesus Christ."
By the summer of 1995, the line between reality and
for Sanders. Some members of the staff were calling him Kerry as well
Robert. The chart continues:
JUNE: "I hear these voices." Says he sees his mother in
AUGUST: Says people are coming out of the walls. Unable to
SEPTEMBER: Expressing thoughts about being held in prison
by the staff
against his will.
A man who was known on the streets as "chicken" was
waiting for the
bus and 26 pounds of crack cocaine at the Greyhound terminal in
on Oct. 7, 1995, when the federal agents showed up. The Drug
Administration had been tipped off about the drug deal, but its agents
had no idea what else they were about to discover when they made their
The man they apprehended had a muscular build and a long
face. He had
many tattoos and scars. He showed them a license bearing the name
J. Dixon and an address in Cleveland. One agent suspected that it was a
fake, especially after noticing that one tattoo on his arm read
Unsure of the man's identity, the agents took fingerprints and sent
to the F.B.I. in Washington. Within hours, the D.E.A. learned that the
prints matched those of a felon named Robert Sanders. But he was
sitting in a prison in New York.
Lillian Capuano was working as a clerk in charge of inmate
Green Haven when the D.E.A.'s call came in. An agent told her he had
fugitive Robert Sanders in custody. She said that was impossible; he
already at Green Haven. The agent, to prove his contention, asked her
send Robert Sanders's fingerprints to the F.B.I.
Capuano, suspicious, noted in a memo that she called the
bureau to verify
that the D.E.A.'s request was real. Reassured, she sent the prints the
prison system had on file for Robert Sanders, taken during his initial
imprisonment in 1990. They matched those of the man arrested in
Mystified, officials at Green Haven then fingerprinted the
had imprisoned for two years as Robert Sanders. In all the time since
arrest on the bench in Los Angeles, this was the first instance his
had been taken and examined. They matched none in the F.B.I.'s files.
Oct. 26, Capuano began to pore through prison records and discovered
since the inmate was brought back to New York, he had been "signing
Sanders, not Robert Sanders."
Later that day, George W. Seyfert 3rd, a deputy inspector
the New York State Department of Correctional Services, was called to
Haven and began his own review of the files on Robert Sanders. They
that Robert Sanders had been arrested several times before he shot a
over cocaine in Harlem in 1990. He was sentenced to three to nine years
in prison. He was fingerprinted, photographed and assigned
No. 90 A 8885. A clerk wrote that he was "adjusting without incident"
that he had no medical or psychiatric problems. The files also showed
after three years in the New York system, Robert Sanders was moved to
State Correctional Facility in the Bronx. Under its work-release
he was allowed to leave each morning at 8 to work in a Harlem
He came back every day at 3, except on Aug. 30, 1993, when he didn't.
At 12:30 p.m. on Oct. 26, 1995, Seyfert, who had settled
into a conference
room that is used for parole hearings, called for the "inmate who
to be Kerry Sanders." He looked at Kerry and at the photograph of
Sanders. There was no resemblance. Over the next hour, Seyfert
Kerry, who responded slowly, mumbling and slurring his words at times.
But the inspector heard and wrote down what he needed to know:
Kerry Sanders. Date of birth: June 25, 1966. Born in Los
a hospital near the Coliseum where the Rams played. His father was John
Sanders; he died in 1982. His mother was Mary. His sister was Roberta.
He had a brother who died. He named his other brothers: Don, Rickey,
He gave his Social Security number. "I used to work as a carpenter," he
Kerry told Seyfert that he was arrested for "sleeping on a
in Los Angeles. He said he answered to the name Robert after his arrest
there but had never used the name before that. Seyfert asked him if he
ever did anything wrong. Kerry began to ramble on about an incident in
which he said he shot a wall while baby-sitting in Arizona.
Had he ever done anything else wrong? Seyfert asked.
"Masturbate -- that's it," Kerry said.
The inspector had one more question. "How are you doing
"I'm O.K.," Kerry replied. "It's good here, but you
wouldn't like it."
With Robert Sanders now in federal custody in Cleveland in
cocaine case, the authorities in New York were determined to have him
out the remaining time on his original state sentence. So they reposted
the warrant for his arrest in the national database.
Meanwhile, Seyfert began trying to reach Kerry's family.
On the afternoon
of Oct. 27, he tracked down Mary Lee's phone number and began dialing.
She picked up the phone. Seyfert asked her to hold for a minute, and
put Kerry on the line.
"Hello? Yes -- Momma?"
Five hours after Seyfert's phone call, Sergeant Badstein,
one of the
New York correctional officers who flew to Los Angeles two years
took Kerry back home. "Here come Kerry with a red sweater on and some
jeans, and he's so glad to see his Momma, he didn't know what to do,"
remembered. "I said: 'Where your coat at? You been in New York? You
to tell me that you didn't have no coat on up in New York? You get
Lee hugged her son and hugged the two Los Angeles police
escorted him from the airport. She invited them in for coffee as she
her family celebrated Kerry's return, but the officers declined.
in a memo to his supervisor, seemed pleased with Lee's reaction and
New York's role had remained largely invisible. "She was only
in his safe return," Badstein wrote, adding that Kerry's mother
He noted that there were "no press or media cameras or the
that Lee "did not ask my name, nor did anyone else in her apartment. No
identification was requested and none was offered. All parties seemed
to see only the uniforms of the L.A.P.D. escorts." Badstein said he
Kerry with nothing that "bore the name" of Green Haven or the New York
corrections department. Kerry was sent home with $48.13, a plastic bag
with some medicine, a soda and a pack of cigarettes -- but with no
for his imprisonment or recommendations on following up his psychiatric
care. It was Kerry who told his family about his time in prison. "They
took me to New York," he said to his sister Roberta. "It was so cold
They put me in this little room."
Then his family tried to find out more. His mother
Green Haven's superintendent, Christopher P. Artuz. "My son is mentally
challenged," she wrote on Dec. 6, 1995. "He does not remember
and I need this information."
Anthony J. Annucci, deputy commissioner and the top lawyer
for the corrections
department, responded two months later. He suggested that Kerry was
to blame for his imprisonment, noting that he had answered to "Robert"
at the time of his arrest and in Green Haven. "The diminished mental
of Kerry Sanders apparently were a significant reason why this error
undetected for as long as it had," Annucci wrote. "I deeply regret any
hardship to Kerry Sanders and his family occasioned by this case of
In the two years after Kerry's release, his family said
they saw a disturbed
man deteriorate further. "He wasn't the same," Roberta said. He had
and shortness of breath. He told his sister and her daughter that he
been sexually assaulted in prison. When he slept at Roberta's house, he
kept the lights on. When they watched television, she said he would
shout as if he were back in his cell, "Man, leave my stuff alone!" or
get on my bunk." His moods grew more erratic, his behavior more
He went on and off his medication and often went back to the streets.
On the evening of Jan. 10, 1997, two officers spotted
against a "Don't Walk" sign on Florence Avenue, forcing cars to brake
as they exited the freeway. They stopped him and asked him for his name
and birth date. They radioed the information to the dispatcher and
back about the felony warrant for Robert Sanders from New York. The
in Los Angeles apparently did not notice that Robert Sanders was in
in the federal cocaine case. The officers pressed ahead.
According to their report, they asked Kerry whether he
knew there was
a warrant for him in New York and he responded: "Yes, I was there 10
ago, and I used the name Robert Sanders. Here, in California, I use the
name Kerry Sanders so no one will know I'm Robert Sanders."
Kerry Sanders was booked and jailed as Robert Sanders,
listed as an alias. Again, the police did not check fingerprints. They
notified prison authorities in New York that they had Robert Sanders in
custody. Three days later, New York said to let him go, and the case
dismissed. "Wrong suspect, exonerated," the police report says. When he
saw his mother, Kerry told her what happened. "I been in jail for
Sanders again," he said. "Momma, they cannot keep Robert Sanders in
He got to do his own time by himself, Momma."
Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they're not out
to get you."
So read the sign hanging in the waiting room of the psychiatric unit at
Green Haven when Benjamin Schonbrun, a lawyer in a small civil rights
in Los Angeles, visited the prison in May. Its sting was not lost on
who went there to talk to staff members who treated Kerry during his
Shortly after her son's return, Mary Lee hired Schonbrun's
firm to file
a federal civil rights lawsuit against the authorities in New York and
Los Angeles. Five years later, they are still trying to sort out moral,
legal and financial responsibility for what happened. Lee hopes that
damages will enable her son to afford better psychiatric care, a wish
has become a backdrop of the case.
The lawsuit argues that Kerry's imprisonment not only
damaged his already
poor mental health but has also had residual effects in the years since
his return home. In the spring of 1998, he was arrested three times.
police said he defaced a window at a Jack in the Box, destroyed a
shop door and was found one day with a semiautomatic rifle he had
out of a garbage bin.
This January, the law firm negotiated a $290,000
settlement with Los
Angeles County for its role in the case. In a letter to the county
of supervisors, the county's own lawyers sharply criticized the police,
the public defender and jail officials, noting that the most basic
tools of law enforcement, fingerprints and photographs, were abandoned.
"Further," the county's lawyers wrote, "there was no suspicion that
Lee Sanders suffered from mental illness that would have alerted
to the fact that they might have the wrong person in custody."
In New York, the attorney general's office has chosen to
fight the lawsuit
in Federal District Court in Manhattan, not disputing that Kerry was
imprisoned but denying any liability. It first claimed that the suit
be dismissed because the statute of limitations had run out; it soon
that argument. It also contended that to bring the suit, Kerry had to
strict legal requirements that apply to prisoners. Judge Deborah A.
who has not hid her disdain for some of the state's arguments, found
one to be "without merit." The requirements didn't apply, she ruled,
Kerry shouldn't have been a prisoner in the first place.
State officials, including spokesmen for the Department of
Services, the Office of Mental Health -- which runs the psychiatric
at Green Haven -- and the attorney general's office have refused to
because of the pending lawsuit.
Paul Shechtman, a former federal prosecutor who oversaw
system from 1995 to 1996 as the criminal justice adviser to Governor
called the case remarkable. "Whatever else," Shechtman said, "it does
that it's appropriate for the state to say mea culpa."
As recently as this spring, the state attorney general's
Kerry's lawyers that except for the psychiatric records, all other
pertaining to his two years in the prison had been lost. A trial date
not been set.
Since last October, Schonbrun and two of his partners,
Wilmer J. Harris
and Michael D. Seplow, have been taking depositions from prison and
health employees involved in the case. Almost all those involved see
as blameless, saying they were not responsible for checking into
claims of innocence. "I let him know there was nothing I could do,"
Michael Rassin, the recreational therapist.
"I am not a legal aid society," Harold Roberson, the other
"It's not my job -- I don't do that," said Silvia Koola,
Questioned about Kerry's release from Green Haven,
the correctional officer who wrote to his boss that he did not show ID
when he accompanied Kerry home, said, "All of our transports are low
Badstein also now maintains that he told Mary Lee who he was.
Seyfert, the deputy inspector general, asked whether he
follow-up care for Kerry, said it was not the state's responsibility.
jurisdiction ended at the door of the Green Haven Correctional
Seyfert, who has worked for the corrections department for 25 years,
the Sanders case was the only one he was aware of in the state system
which an innocent man, unable to speak for himself, was picked up and
in jail in place of an escaped convict. He acknowledged, however, that
he had not investigated whether there were any other such cases.
In the suit, the lawyers also contend that Kerry was
in prison and that his comments to the staff that he was pregnant
have been seen as a sign from a mentally ill man that he was raped. Dr.
Chung, asked in his interview about Kerry's pregnancy comment, said it
can be viewed only one way: "Just nonsense."
"Do you think it makes any sense that a male is pregnant?"
"If the patient is female, then it can make sense. Maybe rape or some
Even if he had a relationship with others, a male can't be pregnant."
whether Kerry might have been signaling that he had been raped, Chung
"We say, G.O.K. -- God only knows."
Of the more than 20 people who have testified in
depositions or been
interviewed for this article, only one official expressed shock at
imprisonment. Wayne L. Strack, a deputy commissioner for corrections at
the time, said he was "flabbergasted" when he learned about the
"With all the checks and balances that we've got, I can't
how it happened," Strack said in a deposition. "I mean, it's drilled in
you from Day 1 of the job: You take an inmate, you're responsible, you
identify him. I mean -- my mind goes boggled." He said the
was broad because "too many things happened."
The issues of responsibility and culpability, of quality
of care and
of monumental and systematic failings continue to surround the lawsuit.
Yet in 2,000 pages of depositions, there have been few displays of
and fewer of outrage. At Green Haven, no one on the staff was even told
what happened, and no one asked. One day, Kerry Sanders just
Chung, only recently learning the details, said it was
better for Kerry
to be in prison than wandering the streets. "He got medication, free
food, everything," the doctor said in his deposition. "He should say,
you, for two years you guys treated me very nicely."'
Kerry Sanders turned 34 on June 25 and he says he is
"ready for the
future." Since March, he has been staying at a supervised
residence in Los Angeles, where he has his own room and a structured
A psychiatrist visits him once a month, and a nurse dispenses his
cooks his meals, organizes his activities and makes sure he rises each
day at 6 so he will be ready for a van that takes him to a therapy
for counseling and classes.
His room at the residence is spare but neat, and he has
his own stereo.
He spends his time playing cassettes -- the Temptations and Tyrone
are among his favorites -- watching Superman cartoons and talking with
his housemates. "Two girls and six guys -- and me," Kerry said in one
several recent interviews. He can sign out to walk to a nearby park or
to a grocery store, where he buys cigarettes and chips. His mother, now
67, visits him regularly, and she can take him home on weekends to her
apartment in Inglewood, where he can see his sisters and their
Kerry remains stocky, his movement slowed by medication,
tentative, his memory clouded. But he can recall some of his two years
at the prison. "When I got invited to go to New York, I don't know what
happened," he said. "They picked me up, and they asked me if I was
Sanders or Robert Sanders. I told them my name was Kerry Sanders."
"It was just horrible," he added. "Going in and out of
cells every day.
Going to dinner. Standing at attention." He cried and prayed a lot. "I
wanted to get out, and I wanted to come home," Kerry said. "It was like
After so many chaotic years, Kerry's life is more stable
now, and he
seems unencumbered by bitterness or anger over what happened to him.
he has a sad resignation about what he knows his future will mean. "It
will be the same as it is today," Kerry said.
Robert Sanders remains in federal prison in the Cleveland
serving a 15-year sentence. New York still has the warrant out for his