Prosecutor calls bogus court papers used in murderers’ prison escape an ‘ongoing threat’
Posted Oct 18, 2013 11:10 AM CST
By Martha Neil
Updated: Two Florida inmates convicted of murder were released in recent weeks based on forged court documents may not be the only ones.
One of the two released men had tried a similar scheme in 2011 but wasn't let out, officials say. A third man, convicted of killing a police officer, tried to use forged documents to get out of prison earlier this year but failed. And the state attorney's office says bogus release paperwork could be used again, NBC News reports.
As authorities search for the missing inmates, observers, including the judge whose signature was forged on court orders releasing both of the men, are speculating about outside help they seemingly must have received. "I am pretty confident that whoever drafted these is either a lawyer, has a law degree or works in the criminal justice system," criminal defense attorney Richard Hornsby tells the Orlando Sentinel.
Authorities became aware on Tuesday that two men, Joseph Jenkins and Charles Walker, both 34, had used the scheme to escape from the Franklin Correctional Institution in Carabelle, Fla., NBC News recounts. Jenkins was let out Sept. 27, and Walker was released Oct. 8. Forged paperwork for both included a prosecutor's motion to reduce the inmate's sentence and a court order signed by a judge.
The Associated Press says the scheme was discovered after a complaint to the Florida State Attorney's Office by the family of a man slain by Jenkins during a botched home invasion in 1998. When prosecutors reviewed his release paperwork they discovered it was fake and notified law enforcement. Subsequently, Walker's paperwork was found to be forged, too.
A spokeswoman for the Orange County clerk of courts said it processed the court documents in a standard fashion, both this year and in 2011, when Jenkins tried a similar scheme. However, two years ago, the state Department of Corrections recognized the issue and put the brakes on his release, NBC News reports.
A corrections spokeswoman said it did nothing wrong. "Everything came the way it normally comes," Misty Cash told the Sentinel. "Our department followed every protocol and did everything we are supposed to do."
An investigation is ongoing to determine what happened and find out if any other inmates have been released based on bogus paperwork.
In a written statement provided Thursday, State Attorney Jeffrey L. Ashton called for increased vigilance: "It is now clear that the use of forged court documents to obtain release from prison is an ongoing threat which all law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, court clerks and prison officials must address and stop."
Although the documents look legitimate, Chief Circuit Judge Belvin Perry, whose signature was forged on the court orders for both Jenkins and Walker, said the fact that a prosecutor purportedly filed a motion seeking a sentence reduction should have been a red flag, the AP reports.
"I've never seen the state attorney file a motion to correct an illegal sentence," Perry told the Sentinel. It's usually defense attorneys who do so."
Court officials are discussing possible measures to try to verify that filings are legitimate, and state lawmakers may conduct hearings on the issue.
Meanwhile, the state corrections department says it will check directly with the judge in the future, not just the court clerk, to ensure that release documents are legitimate, reports another Associated Press article.
ABAJournal.com: "Prison releases 2 convicted murderers after forged court documents reduce their sentences"
CBS News: "Judge on convicted murderers set free: Forging my signature 'not hard to do'"
Updated at 5:40 p.m. to include additional Associated Press, CBS News and Orlando Sentinel coverage.