Wrongfully jailed woman sends city notice of intent

by: Mark Winne Updated:

ATLANTA,None —

An attorney for a woman mistakenly jailed for almost two months told Channel 2 Action News late Friday evening he has sent the city of Atlanta notice of his legal claims against it after his law partner and wife said earlier this week she intends to sue the city for her client's wrongful arrest.

Investigative reporter Mark Winne broke the story Tuesday of Teresa Culpepper's wrongful arrest in August, when Atlanta police officers mistook her for a woman named Teresa Gilbert, who was wanted on charges of aggravated assault and battery.

Culpepper told Winne she had contacted the Atlanta Police Department on Aug. 21 to report a car theft. She said one of the officers who responded to her call returned later that day to arrest her in an aggravated assault she did not commit because there were minor similarities between her and the suspect.

"Her birth date didn't match. Her address didn't match. Her description didn't match. Other than the name Teresa, nothing matched," Culpepper's attorney, Ashleigh Merchant, said.

According to records, Culpepper was arrested by APD under her real name, although the incident report lists her as Teresa Gilbert, and detained for 53 days in the Fulton County Jail.

The Fulton County District Attorney's office filed a criminal complaint against Culpepper charging her with aggravated assault.

Merchant said it was not until Culpepper's public defender at the time brought the victim into court to exonerate Culpepper that she was released from jail last week.

"She had medical records. She had numerous other documents that showed her name and proved her actual identity, but nobody bothered to check, and they arrested her and took her to jail," said Merchant.

Another attorney for Culpepper, John Merchant, said he's sending APD and others requests to preserve evidence as a preliminary step on behalf of Culpepper in a case of mistaken identity he said was easily preventable.

Culpepper's attorneys told Winne about the simple steps they claim could have prevented this whole mixup.

"Because she never saw the victim, the victim was not able to make the correct identification, (and) she was forced to spend 53 days in the jail," John Merchant said.

John Merchant indicated a major concern is the preliminary steps in the case once Culpepper was arrested in a crime in which the suspect was another woman named Teresa from the same part of town.

John Merchant said the victim in the attack was taken to South Fulton Medical Center. The officer who picked up Culpepper at first indicated that's where he was taking her, apparently to see if the victim would identify her, but the officer did not end up taking her there, he said.

"If, in fact, they had taken Teresa to the hospital to see the victim, then he easily could have confirmed she was not the suspect," said John Merchant.

"It was as easy as (the officer) snapping a photo with his phone, and showing it. He could've texted it to the other officer," Ashleigh Merchant said.

An emailed statement from Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard's office on Tuesday confirmed authorities arrested and charged the wrong person in this case.

The statement reads:
"After investigating this matter thoroughly and discussing it carefully with the Atlanta Police Department, we have concluded that the wrong person was arrested. On the day of the incident, a description of the perpetrator was provided to police by the victim. The police identification was based in part on a prior incident that had occurred the same day with Ms. Culpepper. This incident and the fact that both of the women in question had the same first name and lived in the same police beat led the officer to believe Ms. Culpepper was responsible… Unfortunately, the officer never presented a picture or any form of identification to [the victim] after the arrest confirming the identity of Ms. Culpepper. Consequently, the mistake was not detected by the police or the District Attorney's Office until both the victim and Ms. Culpepper were present in court."

Culpepper said it has been difficult to settle back into her routine on the outside after what she said was the scariest experience of her life.

"She's doing good.  She's trying to get her life back together. She's trying to pick up the pieces," said Merchant.