ORLANDO — The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is reviewing its policies and procedures following the release of two convicted killers earlier this month. Forged documents allowed the inmates to walk out of a Florida prison, claiming their life sentences had been reduced to just 15 years.
Following their release, Joseph Jenkins and Charles Walker registered as felons with the Orange County Jail 300 miles away. Filing the appropriate paperwork and providing fingerprints allowed them to fly under the radar, said Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings, in a statement. "If they had failed to register, that certainly would have cued an inquiry for our department or from law enforcement."
The two men were freed within two weeks of each other and each registered within three days of their release. Due to the consistency of the men’s documents and movements, Demings suspects these cases may not be the first. In both, release paperwork was filed within the past few months and included forged signatures from the same judge and prosecutor. Prosecutors and prison officials have now begun reviewing additional records to ensure no other forgeries have been submitted.
Authorities only became aware of the situation when a family member of Jenkins’ victim contacted State Attorney John Ashton. The family member was notified of Jenkin’s release via mail, as is standard. The state attorney’s investigation lead to the discovery of both forged documents.
Corrections Secretary Michael Crews is already working to avoid further confusion and identify any future forgeries. Though it remains unclear who produced and supplied the fake documents, or how the cases were related, the forgeries were well-made and easily cleared the appropriate offices. Crews has since issued a directive to all judges outlining new procedures, and requiring prison officials to verify early releases with judges, rather than court clerks.
Senator Greg Evers, chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, and Chief Circuit Judge Belvin Perry are also working to more quickly identify and thwart future forgeries. The two have proposed that judges review all early release documents before they are passed along to court clerks and prisons. Perry is confident this new approach will be effective. “If the court administrator puts these plans into place throughout the state it will solve the problem.”
However, State Attorney Ashton remains cautious of future issues. "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.” Ashton adds that an additional man serving a life sentence was also slated for release with the aid of false documents. However, thanks to the attention drawn to the issue by Jenkins and Walker, an investigator identified the forgeries before the inmate’s release.
Florida is also in the process of transitioning from paper to digital files and records, a move some feel will open the state to additional forgeries. To avoid the same mistakes, dedicated email accounts have been given to all judges. The digital system is set to go live in Feb. 2014, but has been delayed several times.