by: Jodie Fleischer Updated:
DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. - It isn't just holidays with his family and prom with his friends that Antwan Wheeler lost sitting behind the barbed wire of the Eastman Youth Detention Center. He lost any trust he had in the criminal justice system.
"It was horrible," Wheeler told investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer, "Feeling helpless. like there wasn't anybody there to help me, like everybody was against me."
Wheeler admits at age 15, he was not so innocent. His juvenile record lists several arrests with charges later dropped and a few minor convictions.
"When I was young, I used to steal and stuff because my mama didn't have that much money," Wheeler admitted.
But on Dec. 23, 2010, he says he did not steal the Dodge Stratus for which he was arrested. Wheeler and two friends were walking along River Road when he says Officer Q. Dejuan Hudson and others pulled up alongside them, handcuffed them and started beating them.
"While I was handcuffed one of the officers hit me in my stomach. When I bent down one of them hit me in my face," Wheeler recounted.
At the time, the beating went unpunished. But a year and a half later, it would be the key that unlocked an even bigger injustice: Hudson testified in court that he saw Wheeler inside the stolen car, but he had not.
A neighbor initially called 911 to report the abandoned vehicle, telling police she saw three young men leave the car on foot. But Hudson's police report stated he witnessed Antwan Wheeler in the driver's seat when he first responded to the call.
Another responding officer's report disputes that. So does the auto theft detective assigned to the case.
"I asked [Hudson] his story and it changed as I asked him, three times. So I said, 'Look, I just don't have enough to move forward, go ahead and release them, cut them loose,’" auto theft detective Christian Guarnizo told Channel 2.
Instead, Hudson filed the charges on Wheeler. The case made its way through the juvenile court system and the only witness at trial was Hudson.
"I observed a grayish vehicle it was occupied by Mr. Antwan Wheeler," Hudson testified. "At the time he was in the driver's seat."
The judge convicted Wheeler and sent him to the Eastman Youth Detention Center.
"This is scary because it can happen to any one of us," said attorney Mike Puglise, who now represents Wheeler. "Sitting in a courtroom and you have no one to speak for you and you see an officer, who's cloaked in all this authority, get up there and lie."
Puglise said the auto theft conviction significantly increased Wheeler's punishment the next time he got in trouble.
"Anything he has done prior was a probation situation, but with this, it enhanced it as a felony and that's where the judge gave him the two years," said Puglise.
Wheeler had already served a year of his sentence when, in May 2012, a grand jury indicted three officers for beating handcuffed teenagers. Arthur Parker, Blake Norwood, and Sgt. Anthony Robinson were the same officers who responded to the Wheeler auto theft call with Hudson, prompting another look at that incident.
"You have a decision to make right now, whether you're going to man-up and tell me the truth about what happened," DeKalb internal affairs investigators pressed Hudson during a recorded interview.
"By the time the call gets dispatched to you they are already out of the car," the detectives informed Hudson during two hours of interrogation. "You lied about what you saw that night ... you perjured yourself."
Hudson abruptly resigned following his internal affairs interview. He blamed his commanding officer, saying he told him to lie.
"Due to the unfortunate circumstances of being at the wrong place at the wrong time with a supervisor whose intentions were misleading for any rookie officer, I have made this decision to resign," Hudson wrote in his resignation letter.
His supervisor was Sgt. Robinson, one of the officers indicted for beating handcuffed teens. The others accused him of ordering them to do it.
But after Hudson's lie was uncovered, Antwan Wheeler continued to sit in juvenile detention for another year.
"It is hard to fathom, and it should not have happened," DeKalb County Public Safety Director Cedric Alexander said of Hudson's lie. But he defended his internal affairs investigators' actions.
"Once that was discovered, our folks did exactly what they were supposed to do."
Alexander said his investigators immediately contacted Robert H. Wilson, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted Wheeler's auto theft case, and alerted him about Hudson's lie in August 2012.
"I don't know what happened from that point," Alexander said.
Wilson declined Fleischer's request for an on-camera interview, but in a written statement, he “Denied that information was ever shared with him.” Wilson added,”It is truly saddening that the police department is attempting to blame [him] for their failure to police one of their own.”
Records obtained by Channel 2 show Wilson was terminated by District Attorney Robert James for performance issues in November 2012. James said he was unaware of the situation involving Hudson's lie at that time, but confirmed the criminal investigation against Hudson is still open.
Legal precedent prohibits prosecutors from using an officer's statements to internal affairs against him in a criminal case, because he is compelled to answer questions or risk termination.
Wheeler has filed a lawsuit against Hudson and DeKalb County, and is trying to get a new trial. To date, the auto theft conviction is still on his record.
He has stayed out of trouble since his release, which he credits to his new attorney believing in his innocence.
"It makes me feel good, because somebody is helping me. Because somebody is there for me," Wheeler said. "There's a lot of kids that could use somebody like him."