On July 29th, 2018, the family of Frederick Williams said a tearful goodbye as a man was taken off life support following a suspected drug overdose at St. Barnabas, a facility run by Hospice of New York. It wasn’t until the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, as part of routine procedures, ran fingerprint tests and discovered that the body did not belong to Frederick Williams. The man taken off of life support was Raheme Malik Perry.
In this investigation at ProPublica, Joe Sexton and Nate Schweber try to figure out what went wrong and who is accountable.
Williams’ family thought he’d want to be buried with his mother at a cemetery on Long Island. Arrangements were made for that to happen. A printed program was created.
But then Naka’s team discovered the mistake. When the man’s fingerprints were fed into one of the office’s databases that stores records of people with criminal histories, another name popped up: Raheme Malik Perry.
Whatever the reasons were for the error, the way forward for Naka’s team was clear. It had to contact two families and deliver very different news. The call to the family of Williams would carry the surprise that the loved one whose death they were grieving was, in fact, alive. The call to this new family, the Perrys, would be no less strange, but its implications would be far more somber — a loved one of theirs was dead, and his death had come after he was taken off life support by strangers.
Williams acknowledges the remarkable series of events and coincidences that had to happen to produce the error at St. Barnabas. He had to lose an ID he’d had for years. It had to wind up in the pocket of a man close to him in age and appearance. That man had to have fallen in the street close to a hospital that had once treated Williams and had his information on file. The discovery of the misidentification happened only because both men had criminal records and fingerprints in a database.