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Here's one guy who really didn't do it

One man's protests fall on deaf ears as he is arrested on a 33-year-old warrant and spends six days in jail in a case of mistaken identity.

WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE
Published August 21, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG - James Douglas Anderson told Pinellas sheriff's deputies they had the wrong guy.

"I didn't do anything," Anderson recalled saying. "Check my fingerprints. You've got the wrong guy."

The deputies weren't hearing it. They arrested Anderson at work on a 33-year-old warrant issued in Miami-Dade County for narcotics possession.

Anderson, 59, couldn't convince anybody he was innocent during the six days he spent in maximum security at the Pinellas County Jail, awaiting extradition to South Florida.

On Tuesday, somebody finally checked those telltale fingerprints.

Anderson was the wrong guy.

"Being in jail was the most-terrifying experience of my life," said Anderson. "It's a scary place. I figured they'd never let me out."

Sheriff Everett Rice's office acknowledged on Wednesday that deputies mistakenly arrested Anderson, who has no adult criminal record, on Aug. 13. They mistook him for someone with an identical first and last name, along with the same birthday.

One difference: The arrest warrant identifies a man with the middle name Daniels.

"I don't think anybody noticed," Anderson said.

Anderson said he would still be jailed if not for the intervention of Public Defender Bob Dillinger, whose office didn't even represent him.

On Tuesday, a friend of Anderson's called Dillinger's office, which asked the sheriff to verify Anderson's identity. He was released within hours.

"How long do they let them sit there before something happens?" Dillinger said. "A 33-year-old warrant? Most officers are retired after 33 years. He could have been held indefinitely."

And even if Anderson had been the right guy, the statute of limitations, long expired, would probably have prevented any prosecution, Dillinger said.

Lawyers are not always appointed to represent inmates awaiting in-state extradition, Dillinger said.

Anderson said he figured he would wait until getting to Miami before retaining one.

"I didn't know what to do," Anderson said.

Sheriff Everett Rice could not be reached for comment.

But his spokeswoman said deputies assumed the differing middle name was an alias used to thwart police. The Sheriff's Office could offer no explanation about a week's delay verifying fingerprints.

"The process could be strengthened, perhaps," said spokeswoman Marianne Pasha, who said Rice and his executive staff would discuss the case.

For Rice's office, the mistaken identity arrest is the latest in a series over the last several years.

One woman won a $50,000 settlement from Pinellas in 2002 after spending 17 hours in jail when deputies misidentified her. Another woman spent 81 days in jail after deputies mistakenly charged her with crack cocaine possession in 1999.

Anderson, meantime, has retained lawyer John Trevena. "You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out whether you have the right suspect," Trevena said.

Pasha said Miami-Dade police requested that Anderson be arrested on the warrant. They provided an address and a description.

"Our deputies felt they had more probable cause than not to arrest him," Pasha said. "Once he was in custody, if there was a question of identity, it could be rectified."

Anderson, who works as a bus driver and program assistant at a St. Petersburg nursing home, said he lost his wallet 30 years ago and suspects someone stole his identity.

Three times since 1988, usually during a traffic stop, police have questioned him about the old warrant, always letting him go without an arrest.

He said he has been told he must go to Miami to straighten out the mixup. But he doesn't want to go because he might be locked away.

"This is never going to go away," he said. "Every time I see a police car, I wonder if I'm going to be locked up and sent to Miami."

Miami-Dade police could provide no information about the old warrant and could not explain why they wanted an arrest on such an old case.

But Miami-Dade blames Pinellas for the arrest.

"Apparently, the police department over there didn't verify who he was," said Miami-Dade Detective Joey Giordano.

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