'Low-tech lie' beats system Justice: Suspect uses sister's name at arrest, throwing monkey wrench into sophisticated identification system -- and leaving the wrong woman in jail.

October 07, 1998|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Almost four weeks. That's how long it took for two probation agents, two pretrial release workers, countless city jail employees, a defense attorney and a judge to figure out who was the real Nakia Smith.

At the end of their inquiry, which should have taken minutes, they learned they had the wrong woman in jail. Smith's sister, the one authorities really wanted, remains at large.

The case illuminates a dark corner of the state's justice system, where 1.5 million sets of fingerprints are kept on file. Defendants cunning or lucky enough can fool the system in spite of its sophisticated identification technology.

"A low-tech lie beat the hell out of a high-tech system," said

Judge Vincent J. Femia, who sorted out the case last week in the courtroom at Baltimore's Central Booking and Intake Facility. "With all the king's horses and the king's men, you can't prevent a liar from fouling up the system."

System bought the lie

This episode of criminal confusion began when Michelle Smith, 26, pleaded guilty last year to felony drug charges using her younger sister Nakia's name. As a result of the fake name, a missed fingerprint and the sisters' criminal records, Nakia Smith, 24, spent months in jail and faced five years in prison for a crime she did not commit.

"They just punched it up in the computer, saying I was someone else instead of taking my fingerprints," Nakia Smith said in an interview Friday. "That wasn't right."

The intake center's computerized fingerprint system, used to identify suspects brought in after arrests, missed Michelle Smith's criminal history when she was processed there on drug charges. When she said her name was Nakia Smith, the system believed her.

Femia said authorities often rely on the names suspects give them. Aliases can confound the system, and both women apparently use various names. "What the fingerprints do is establish a historical record," Femia said. "As a practical matter, you go on people's names. One sister sold the other sister up the river."

At one point, probation agents thought the two women might, in fact, be one. In court, Femia began describing the real Nakia Smith as "Nakia, Model 74" in reference to her date of birth in September 1974. Her sister had used her December 1971 birth date.

Dire implications

But the implications of the foul-up are dire, legal observers say. Were it not for a dedicated staff determined to find out who was who, the real Nakia Smith -- with no attorney and only an anxious husband on her side -- may have spent much more time unjustly jailed.

"The real problem is that absent an attorney, there's going to be lots of mistakes and errors and miscarriages of justice," said Douglas L. Colbert, a law professor with the University of Maryland.

He said suspects awaiting probation violation hearings can be held up to six months before seeing an attorney. In this case, Nakia Smith did not have one until September -- and that #F attorney was supposed to be for her sister.

Michelle Smith used Nakia's name on May 2, 1997, after being arrested in Baltimore carrying about 30 capsules of heroin. She also used the name when she pleaded guilty to the charges in June.

Michelle was given a suspended jail sentence. The case came back to court on a violation of probation charge because Michelle did not report to her probation agent. The person probation agents wanted to hold responsible for the charge was the person whose name appeared in their files: Nakia Smith.

A warrant was issued for Nakia's arrest.

In March, a woman already in custody was brought to court to answer the charges. The probation agent in the case -- Connie Gantt -- had never seen her before. Wrong defendant, she told the judge. This one, named Nikia Smith, was five years younger than Gantt's client. She was sent back to jail.

Two weeks later, the same woman was brought to court. Wrong again, Gantt told the judge. Finally, on Sept. 9, the real Nakia Smith was brought into the courtroom. Gantt had never seen her before, either. Wrong again, she told the judge.

Nakia Smith -- whose married name is Nakia Smith Nwosu -- told the court: "It's not me you want, it's my sister." Everyone scratched their heads.

Gantt, too, was mystified: "I didn't know who she was. I didn't know whether they were playing games or not. I had no proof."

Prior problems

She had reasons to be suspicious. Both women had been in trouble with the law before. Nakia Smith was in jail on drug charges and a different probation violation charge when she was brought to court for this case.

It took three more weeks and much confusion before Gantt, the judge, and pre-trial services confirmed that the woman they wanted was Michelle Smith, and the woman they had was Nakia.

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