Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Stokes Case: How the System Broke Down

Posted By on Thu, May 13, 2010 at 7:24 AM

Dearick Stokes
  • Dearick Stokes
(This is an expanded version of an account also featured in the current Flyer Viewpoint, "More Than a Glitch.")

Most convicted felons serving the first few months of a life sentence would need a successful appeal and a million dollar bond to walk out jail's front door. Convicted murderer Dearick Stokes just needed a faulty computer system.

On April 22, Stokes was released from jail just months into his life sentence, back on the street for the second time since his conviction. Stokes had previously gone into hiding just before the jury convicted him of murder, leaving the courthouse after telling his attorney, he needed to use the bathroom.

“I thought 'well, we'll never see this guy again,'” said Judge James Lammey Jr., who oversaw Stokes' trial. “He already had one chance to get away, one shot at it. and he failed, so the next time they've had a little practice, they might do something different. That's why I think it was such a good job on the investigators' behalf of finding this guy so quickly.”

Fortunately, Stokes was recaptured less than a week later at the Relax Inn on South Third Street after an intensive manhunt led by Sheriff Mark Luttrell.

“At this point it's almost comical,” Lammey said after Stokes' capture. “But I have a wife and kids, I want them to be safe. The jurors I know they had concerns during trial, about this fellow and his family. A couple of them felt like they were being eyed. So to know that this guy was on the street again, that would be scary for them, to say the least, and also the witnesses that testified against him. When he was out there it wasn't comical at all, it was frightening.”

What remains frightening is the prospect of a repeat performance, as the Stokes' situation is just the latest, most dangerous and high profile problem with a computer system that causes daily problems for those using it.

In order to handle issues of bond, release, court appearances, charges and other matters pertinent to case adjudication, the Criminal Court computer system and Jail computer system must be in constant communication with each other. Problem is, the two systems don't communicate very well.

The system often takes more than a day to register critical elements, does not interpret complex legal elements of adjudication correctly, and causes a variety of simple user hang-ups.

“I can do a record check from my computer, but it won't show the record on my screen,” Lammey said. “I have to print it out. So I just can't look at it on the computer. You would think that since the information is there that I would be able to see it and not print it. It seems like a waste of paper.”

That may seem like a normal office complaint, but it gets worse. Already indicted defendants appear in court erroneously daily, because their indictment isn't stored in the system. An order for release from jail can be easily confused as a release to the Dept. of Corrections (read: Prison) or to the street. And complications involving bond forfeiture, automatic sentences, sentencing hearings and case closure can all get convoluted moving back and forth between the two databases.

In Stokes' case, a charge of domestic assault was dropped to save judiciary effort, entered into the Criminal Court system, and sent to the Jail system. When the dropped charge showed up in the Jail system, the murder conviction was nowhere to be found. Also not found? An indictment for failure to appear in a felony case, issued earlier that day. Either would have kept Stokes in custody, but both were lost in the matrix.

And so, at 9:30 p.m. on April 22, Stokes was summoned by jail staff, questioned by release staff, given his things and politely shown the door. Just like that, a convicted murderer and one-time fugitive was out of police custody and back on the streets. Luttrell estimates that Stokes' release was witnessed by as many as six employees before he walked out the door.

“You would think a light bulb would go off somewhere,” Luttrell said. “There were some people scratching their heads and some members of staff stopped to question him and followed up, but we eventually let him go.”

The follow-up was not a phone call to Criminal Court, a question sent to Lammey or an effort to find original paperwork. Nope. The follow-up was just a double-check of faulty computer screen. Stokes benefitted from a perfect storm of systematic errors and poor timing, and was able to get out of jail.

To Luttrell that is unacceptable. Problems with both sides of the system were as well known as Stokes' status as a chronic flight risk.

“You should never rely exclusively on a computer,” Luttrell said. “We've known for a number of years that we have an antiquated system. It's got some problems. We established a task force three months ago to look holistically into this entire IT situation in the criminal justice system knowing we had some problems, and I think it's clear now that the accident we were fearful would happen, happened. And it happened in a big way.”

That reliance on the computer was already removed by Judge Chris Craft of Division VIII, who ordered that no prisoner who had appeared in his court would be released without accompanying paperwork. Craft made his order after a similar incident occurred in his court years prior to the Stokes' incident.

Now all defendants in criminal court will undergo the same scrutiny before being released, something Lammey feels is adequate for the time being.

“It's an expensive proposition to replace the whole [system]. The cheaper solution right now is to require that they have all the paperwork in hand. For now I'm satisfied that they have it corrected.”

A more permanent fix for the computer system is going to be trickier to implement. The positions of Criminal Court Clerk and Sheriff are both in the process of switching after this upcoming election, with no incumbent in sight. Much of the burden for updating these systems will fall on victors of those races, but will also include a myriad of officials at all levels of government. Luttrell, who is running for Shelby County Mayor, has said a focus on a more permanent solution would be a priority for him in the Mayor's position, but that he cannot predict if voters will give him that chance after this incident.

“I don't know about [effects on his campaign],” Luttrell said. “The political implications of this will be left up to the citizens.”

In the wake of the incident Luttrell has ordered a full investigation that he expects to be made public later this week. Any disciplinary action will be made based on the investigation's findings.

In the meantime, the local criminal justice system, which is the busiest in the state, is left with a computer system that has effectively rendered itself useless with regard to prisoner movement. For now, it's back to paper pushing.

Despite the development, Lammey says it is important for the public to retain faith in the administrating of criminal justice done downtown.

“From my perspective, we have the people in the community who are told countless times that the system is broken, and from our perspective we're trying to show that the system actually works,” Lammey said. “This hurts that effort, but we want to be sure that people have the right impression of our criminal justice system. I want people to have confidence in the system.”

Lammey, Luttrell and other believers may be able to convince the public, but their biggest task moving forward is to convince the computer.

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