It was known wrong man was in jail, but. . .
DEE J. HALL
October 1, 2007
Dane County prosecutor Paul Humphrey kept 18-year-old Kenneth Bell in the Dane County Jail for a month, even though he was sent notification at least four times that the wrong person was being held, a Wisconsin State Journal investigation showed.
Months before the young man from Chicago was locked up, his older brother, Aziel Bell, 22, had used Kenneth's identity when police pulled him over in traffic.
Aziel Bell was charged with obstructing police by giving them the wrong name. The older Bell then skipped a court hearing, resulting in a warrant for the arrest — of Kenneth Bell, alias Aziel Bell.
The real Kenneth Bell's troubles started May 24, 1999, after he got into a dispute with a woman and was arrested on tentative charges of simple battery and disorderly conduct. A judge ordered a $900 cash bail in the case because records showed there was a warrant out for his arrest in the obstruction case. He couldn't pay the bail, so he was jailed.
Three weeks after Kenneth Bell's arrest, Humphrey told Dane County Circuit Judge Robert DeChambeau that the Fitchburg police were still trying to figure out Bell's true identity.
"They weren't sure, when I talked to them probably two weeks ago, they weren't sure if they had Kenneth Bell or Aziel Bell," Humphrey told DeChambeau at a hearing on June 22, 1999. "We're checking the fingerprints now, but I don't have the results of the fingerprint check to establish who it is that is under bail in either of these cases."
But a review of documents from Humphrey's prosecution file, released to the newspaper by the district attorney's office, showed that police officials had already checked the fingerprints weeks earlier and notified Humphrey that Kenneth and Aziel Bell were not the same person and that the younger man — who had no previous criminal record — was not the one wanted for bail jumping.
The case is one of several in which the State Journal found police and court documents back up critics' charges that Humphrey has abused his authority as Dane County assistant district attorney.
'Where's the proof?'
During a lengthy interview last fall with Humphrey and his attorney, Lester Pines, the prosecutor insisted there was no proof the wrong man was in jail. He held a copy of what he said was his case file and denied he was ever notified that Aziel and Kenneth Bell were two people.
"Where's the proof?" Humphrey said hotly. "Where's the proof? I don't have the proof! It's not in my file!"
After the interview, the State Journal obtained access to documents from Humphrey's files that showed the prosecutor was notified repeatedly that Kenneth Bell was not the person sought by the bail jumping warrant.
In the interview, Pines said his client didn't intentionally keep the wrong man in jail. Deputy District Attorney Judy Schwaemle, Humphrey's supervisor, never would have tolerated that behavior, Pines said.
"If she (Schwaemle) thought, as the deputy district attorney, that one of her assistants had deliberately kept the person in jail that wasn't supposed to be there, there would've been serious repercussions — I guarantee you," Pines said, adding, "Paul would no longer be an assistant district attorney."
In a followup interview in July, Pines said he's certain Humphrey wouldn't have made those statements to DeChambeau if he had been aware of the documents brought to light by the State Journal. He couldn't explain why Humphrey said last fall that there was no proof of the identity mixup.
"People can be mistaken and they can be firm in their opinions without lying," Pines said.
Humphrey said any errors he made were unintentional. "Just because I'm wrong or I'm mistaken doesn't mean that I'm a crook," Humphrey said.
'Incident is unfortunate'
During a 2000 court hearing, Madison defense attorney Lisa Goldman accused Humphrey of knowingly keeping her client in jail.
She declined to comment, saying she's unable to find Kenneth Bell, who must give his permission for her to discuss the case. Attempts by the State Journal to find Bell also failed.
Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard said it's unclear to him what happened with Bell's arrest, which occurred before he took office in January 2001.
Blanchard speculated that back in 1999 when Bell was in jail, Humphrey may not have seen some of the documents.
"It's hard to understand why, if Paul was aware of this, why he wouldn't take care of it," Blanchard said. "It would be misconduct, certainly, to mislead the court or ignore the strong possibility that the wrong person was in jail. (And) it obviously would be misconduct if someone kept someone in jail purposely."
There's no question that this particular incident is unfortunate," Blanchard said. "This could've no doubt been handled better by this office."
A fingerprint check
Kenneth Bell was arrested in Madison on May 24, 1999, after reportedly fighting with a woman over a $10 marijuana debt. Both Bell and the woman were charged with misdemeanor battery and disorderly conduct for the fight.
Bell also was charged with bail jumping for his brother's failure to show up for a court hearing in the 1998 traffic case.
Within days of the younger brother's arrest, both Bell brothers told jail and police officials that it was Aziel who had jumped bail in 1998, not Kenneth.
Three days after Kenneth Bell's arrest, on May 27, Aziel Bell told Fitchburg Police Officer Gary Gustafson that he had used his brother's name in the previous incident that led to the bail-jumping charge. On May 28, Gustafson reported that information to Humphrey, according to a document from Humphrey's file.
On June 4, Humphrey asked for a fingerprint check. On June 7, he got his answer from Fitchburg Police Officer Judi Tessman: The Kenneth Bell being held in the Dane County Jail was not the man wanted for skipping the earlier hearing.
"The jail compared fingerprints of Kenneth Bell to Aziel Bell (his brother) and learned that the original obstruction charge should have been for Aziel Bell not Kenneth Bell," Tessman wrote.
About that time, Goldman was assigned to represent Kenneth Bell and filed a motion to have the younger brother released. A June 22 bail hearing was set.
During the hearing, Goldman presented Judge DeChambeau with records indicating her client had never been arrested before in Dane County and that it was his brother — at the time also in the Dane County Jail — who was wanted for bail jumping.
Humphrey told the judge on June 22 that officials still didn't know whether the two were one in the same. DeChambeau ordered Humphrey to find out in two days, when he and Goldman were scheduled to meet for a pretrial conference.
The next day, on June 23, Humphrey was again notified, this time by Mary Colletti, a clerk in the district attorney's office, that the fingerprints for the two men didn't match. "Kenneth Bell was not involved in the (1998) case," said Colletti's handwritten note in Humphrey's file.
On June 24 — the deadline DeChambeau set for figuring out the identities — Goldman went to the Dane County Courthouse to meet Humphrey for the pretrial hearing, but the prosecutor was nowhere to be found. He had left for a week of military reserve training and had taken Kenneth Bell's file with him, according to a transcript of a later hearing.
Pines said he doesn't know why Humphrey took the file with him nor why the prosecutor didn't make arrangements for another assistant district attorney to handle the pretrial conference.
Court records show Goldman then got documents from Fitchburg Police and the Dane County Jail and used them to convince Schwaemle, Humphrey's supervisor, to release Kenneth Bell.
The date was June 25, 1999 — one month and one day after the teen was put behind bars.
At a Feb. 7, 2000, hearing before DeChambeau seeking to dismiss the misdemeanor battery and disorderly conduct charges against her client, Goldman blasted Humphrey's actions. The prosecutor said little, never denying or explaining why Kenneth Bell was kept locked up for a month, according to a transcript of the hearing.
"I went to the jail to inquire if they knew what was going on with the fingerprints, and they had informed me that they had figured it out almost a month earlier," Goldman told the judge.
"I went to the Fitchburg Police Department, who provided me with documentation showing they had faxed the DA's office, specifically with a Post-It to Paul Humphrey, that they had figured out whose fingerprints were whose three weeks before the scheduled bail hearing we had in this case … Up to that point he had spent over 30 days in jail related to this case."
At that 2000 hearing, DeChambeau dismissed the case against Kenneth Bell after Goldman argued that Humphrey had repeatedly delayed the start of the trial, causing the young man three unnecessary trips from Chicago. A week later, Humphrey refiled the same charges of battery and disorderly against Bell.
At a later court hearing — on June 6, 2000 — Bell didn't show up. The Dane County district attorney's office currently has a warrant out for his arrest — for bail jumping.
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