Annette Beauplan picked up the phone, and for a few seconds she lost her bearings. She knew the voice on the line was her brother, Maxau Pierre. But she couldn't figure out where in God's name he was calling from.
"He was flying back from Haiti that day and I thought he was calling me from the airport," Beauplan recalls. "I say, `Can I come pick you up?' He say, `No, I'm in jail.' I say, `What? What you do?' He say, `I don't know.' I got very upset right then. I thought he must be in Haiti still, stuck in the jail because of the political situation there. I say, `Where are you?' And he say, `Dade County jail.'"
At first Beauplan felt a measure of relief. "I thought, at least he's not stuck in Haiti. It's better that he's here where we can fix the problem." More than a year later, she isn't so sure. Neither is her brother, who spent nearly six weeks in jail and another two months under house arrest before prosecutors agreed in September to drop armed-robbery and kidnapping charges against him.
Scott Saul, Pierre's attorney, contends the arrest of his client was an obvious, and avoidable, case of mistaken identity. Last month Saul sent a letter to the Miami city attorney, informing him of his intent to sue the Miami Police Department for $100,000 in damages, citing "grossly negligent and deplorable police work" and a "malicious prosecution" that cost Pierre his job, thousands of dollars in court-related fees, and for the period he was incarcerated, his sanity.
"Assembly-line justice," Saul huffs. "My client had a clear alibi. If police or prosecutors had given this guy more than five minutes' consideration, they would have realized they had picked up the wrong Max Pierre. It seems to me that's what someone should have done to begin with: Ask my client his side of the story and check it out. Isn't that the whole point of an investigation?"
The Miami police robbery detective who conducted the investigation, Carol Thony, contends that she made her arrest on the basis of a positive identification by the victim. She never interviewed Pierre, she says, because "[police] couldn't locate him and had to issue a warrant."
According to police records, the incident that led to Pierre's arrest took place on October 12, 1991. On that Saturday a woman named Sonia Joseph arranged to meet with two men to buy a used car. Rather than selling Joseph a vehicle, the men allegedly held her at gunpoint and stole her purse, which contained more than $900 in cash.
Joseph came down to the police station after the rip-off and gave Thony the names of the two men: Andrew Destave, a former high school classmate of hers, and Max Pierre. Thony tracked down a picture of Destave from an old school yearbook and a photo of Pierre from a previous misdemeanor arrest. Joseph positively identified them as the thieves.
Defense attorney Saul contends that Joseph mistook the picture of his client for another person who happened to be Max Pierre. Thony counters that Joseph was "adamant" about the ID. (Efforts to contact Joseph, based on the phone numbers listed on her police complaint, were unsuccessful.)
Nearly six months after Sonia Joseph's photo ID, police still were unable to track down Pierre.
On May 21 Max Pierre, a legal resident of the U.S., flew into Miami International Airport, returning from a visit with his wife and child in Haiti. Before he had a chance to digest his in-flight meal, the diminutive immigrant was taken into custody; there was a warrant for his arrest. He says no police officer ever questioned him. In fact, because he speaks only Creole, Pierre wasn't quite sure of what he was accused.
"I just show up at the airport and the customs man take my passport," he explains in Pidgin English. "He run it through a computer and say to me that Metro-Dade is looking for me for a long time. I say, `I don't know nothing about that.' Then they take my picture and take my fingerprints and take me to the jail. I think I just have to spend a few hours there."
Not quite. Because he was accused of armed robbery, a first-degree felony, Pierre was booked without bond. While he sat in jail, his sister began a frantic round of calling. "I call down to the jail for a week to figure out what Max done," Annette Beauplan says. "One lady said she can't tell me. Then finally they say he kidnap someone. After that I start calling to lawyers. They wanted $10,000 or $15,000 to take the case because the charges were so serious. I figure, we'll do without lawyers. Because if he is innocent, they will realize anyway."
By June Beauplan's faith in the system had begun to erode. Pierre's arraignment date had come and gone. He had pleaded not guilty and returned to the Dade County stockade. He had been assigned three different public defenders since his arrest and had no idea when he might go to trial. "I lost one month, one week, and two days in jail," Pierre says now. "My family in Haiti don't understand what's happened. Sometimes I think I'm crazy."
Finally, he says, he told a fellow inmate about his dilemma. The man referred him to attorney Scott Saul. Beauplan scraped together the money to pay a $1000 retainer, exhausting the bulk of her savings. Saul, a former assistant state attorney, immediately requested that his client be granted an evidentiary hearing to plead for his release from jail. The prosecutor, Jim Rockefeller, agreed to spring Pierre without a hearing, provided he be placed under house arrest and wear an electronic monitoring ankle bracelet.
Saul arranged for his client to take a polygraph exam, and on July 6 polygrapher George Slattery found Pierre to be telling the truth when he denied any involvement with the October 12, 1991, robbery. Pierre also told the polygrapher that on the day in question, he believed he might have been working at Emerald Design, a Fort Lauderdale landscaping company.
Officials at Emerald Design say their records show Pierre worked on October 12, 1991.
Saul had the polygraph report sent to Rockefeller, hoping the charges would be dropped. But when Rockefeller called victim Sonia Joseph, she again insisted she'd identified the right suspects. "She said she'd seen [Pierre] before and knew it was him," Rockefeller recounts. "What am I supposed to do, polygraph the victim? I don't think it's appropriate for the state to rely on a polygraph to drop charges with no other evidence. Then all you have is a swearing contest."
As Pierre's late-September trial date drew near, Saul tried unsuccessfully to arrange a meeting between Rockefeller, himself, and his client. He says Rockefeller would not consent to a meeting, suggesting that he contact codefendant Andre Destave, instead. That way Destave might confirm that police had arrested the wrong Max Pierre.
The two men finally came face to face on September 21, just before Pierre's scheduled trial. Pierre entered the courtroom along with Rockefeller, Destave, and Destave's public defender, Robert Coppel. In an off-the-record conversation of dizzying legal convolution, Saul asked Coppel to ask Destave if he knew the Max Pierre who was standing across the courtroom. "Destave said that he'd never seen the guy before," Coppel recalls. "I could sense he was being straight."
Rockefeller immediately dropped the case. Later Destave agreed to a plea bargain that spared him a prison term, provided he testify in court if police ever arrest the right Max Pierre. (He also gave Rockefeller a sworn statement that noted the striking physical similarity between the two Max Pierres, which helped explain the confusion. Destave says the Max Pierre who robbed Sonia Joseph was perhaps two inches taller than his innocent namesake.) Rockefeller says he now hopes to have an arrest warrant drawn up for this second Max Pierre, as well as for Joseph Seme, the man Rockefeller believes masterminded the October 1991 robbery.
On October 29 Saul sent his scathing missive, announcing Pierre's intent to sue.
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For Beauplan, a struggling college student who went into debt to free her brother, the money would be a windfall. As it is, her tiny North Miami home generally goes without air-conditioning. But she maintains that the suit is as much a matter of principle as payback: "I want to send a message to those officials there. I do appreciate what they do, but some of their attitudes make me sick. Every time they see a black man on the street, they take him to jail. It's not right. I know many black men are bad out there, but not all of them. Before you arrest someone, you have to make sure that you have all the facts and details."
But for Pierre, who came to the U.S. in 1985 to escape poverty, the potentially lucrative suit may not be lure enough to keep him in the country. After his lesson in American criminal justice, the one-time farm worker says he would like to return to his small Haitian village of St. Louis. He has scrapped plans to bring his wife and child over from Haiti. "No more," he declares, shaking his head over his sister's objections. "I don't want my family to come over here any more. Not any more."
Of course, there is one factor that could keep him in the United States for a while -- Pierre says he has yet to reclaim the passport and residence card that were taken from him at the time of his arrest.
"If they had given this guy more than five minutes' consideration, they would have realized they picked up the wrong Max Pierre."