(An expanded version of this Viewpoint appears in "Political Beat" under the title "The Stokes Case: How the Sytem Broke Down.")
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 the jail's front door. Convicted murderer Dearick Stokes just needed a faulty computer system.
On April 22nd, Stokes was released from jail 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, Marvin Ballin, he needed to use the bathroom. Fortunately, Stokes was recaptured less than a week later at the Relax Inn on South Third after an intensive manhunt led by Sheriff Mark Luttrell.
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.
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 Department of Corrections and vice versa. Complications involving bond forfeiture, automatic sentences, sentencing hearings, and case closure can all get convoluted as they move 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 22nd, 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 onetime fugitive was out of police custody and back on the streets.
"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 presiding judge James Lammey Jr., or an effort to find original paperwork. Nope. The follow-up was just a double-check of the faulty computer screen. Stokes benefited from a perfect storm of systematic errors and poor timing and was able to get out of jail.
"You should never rely exclusively on a computer," Luttrell said. "We've known for a number of years that we have an antiquated system."
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 ago.
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."
In the wake of the incident, Luttrell ordered a full investigation. 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.
"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," Judge Lammey said.
It may be possible to convince the public, but the biggest task moving forward is to convince the computer.
Memphian Douglas Gillon is a freelance writer and political commentator.
A longer version of this article can be found on memphisflyer.com.