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Wrongly jailed woman seeks action against Atlanta cops

By Lateef Mungin, CNN
updated 5:49 PM EDT, Sun October 23, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Woman loses her home and car while she is jailed
  • She was mistaken for a suspect and jailed for nearly two months
  • District attorney acknowledges mistake

Atlanta (CNN) -- When Teresa Culpepper called Atlanta police to report her car stolen, the last thing she expected was to land behind bars for 53 days in a case of mistaken identity.

Mistaken for a woman of the same first name who was wanted on a battery charge, Culpepper is now trying to return her life to normal after the ordeal cost her home and her car. Her attorney said none of it would have happened if police had followed basic procedures.

"This is something that should not have ever happened. It is nuts," said attorney Ashleigh Merchant.

While police did not return calls to CNN about Culpepper, the district attorney has determined that she was the wrong person arrested.

Culpepper's saga started August 21, whe she called police to report that her car was stolen, Merchant said. An officer took information from her, but never filed a report. Shortly after, police dispatchers called out a bulletin, alerting officers to look out for a woman named Teresa Gilbert who was suspected of aggravated battery.

Police returned to Culpepper's house and arrested her. And the differences between the two women didn't stop at their last names, Merchant said.

"The birth dates didn't match. The addresses were different. The description didn't match. Other than the name Teresa, nothing matched," Merchant said. "All they had to do was show a picture of Teresa to the victim and none of this would have happened."

Even so, Culpepper was held in jail, handed a bond she couldn't cover and indicted. She remained in jail for days, thinking there was no way out of the predicament.

It wasn't until weeks later that the battery victim came forward in court and cleared Culpepper's name.

Still, released on October 12, Culpepper found herself homeless and her car in the impound lot.

"After investigating this matter thoroughly and discussing it carefully with the Atlanta Police Department, we have concluded that the wrong person was arrested," District Attorney Paul Howard Jr. said in a written statement to CNN affiliate WSB. "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."

Culpepper is seeking legal action against the Atlanta police, Merchant said.

"It is scary, really," Merchant said. "Because it is not like Teresa is an uncommon name. It makes you feel that it could have happened to anybody."

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