Paperwork snafu = month behind bars
When Jennifer Dowell White went before a Charlottesville grand jury August 20, jury members declined to indict her on charges of obtaining money under false pretenses. However, she wasn't released from jail until today – more than a month later – because the paperwork was that would have freed her was "misplaced" in the Charlottesville Circuit Court clerk's office– and attorneys say this is not an uncommon occurrence.
In a special hearing this afternoon, Judge Cheryl Higgins released White, 39, on her own recognizance. Her attorney, Valerie L'Herrou, says, "It's been an ongoing problem for us to get indictments from the clerk's office. We have requested this several times, including in writing."
Last Friday, L'Herrou discovered that the grand jury had not returned a true bill of indictment against White. At 4:15pm – minutes before the clerk's office closed – she and her boss, public defender Jim Hingeley, went to the Charlottesville clerk's office to ask for White's grand jury paperwork. "It took around 20 minutes before they could locate the file," says L'Herrou.
The two public defenders immediately contacted Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Chapman, who said in court he couldn't find the grand jury paperwork either. Because all the judges were at a conference in Northern Virginia, Tuesday afternoon was the earliest they could schedule a bond hearing.
"It's wrong," says friend-of-the-family Curtis Byers. "If there are no more charges, you should be able to walk out. It's their responsibility– the Commonwealth and the clerk's. I'm tired of it. I've seen it for a long time, and something needs to be done. Somebody's not doing their job."
"I didn't know what this was all about," said Charlottesville Clerk Paul Garrett when he was asked in court if he could fax over paperwork for the judge's signature to release White. "I'm not going to talk about it," Garrett said to a reporter.
This isn't the first time Garrett's gotten heat recently. The State Compensation Board revoked $52,000 in funding for a database after Garrett falsely claimed three times that his office's records were online, the Daily Progress reported in April.
"I don't know what the problem is," says Liz Murtagh, deputy public defender, who requested the indictment on September 6. "We had more difficulty this time."
Attorneys from the public defender's office listed other cases where defendants were held in jail because the paperwork was not processed from the clerk's office. In one case, a man was found not guilty and his family called his attorney, Llezelle Dugger, the next day to say he still hadn't been released, says Dugger. And in another case, a defendant sentenced to time served spent extra time in jail.
"It's concerning," says L'Herrou. "People are being held longer than they should be. And it's not just a problem with our office. Other attorneys say they have the same problem."
"It's outrageous; it's unconscionable," says Murtagh. If Hingeley and L'Herrou hadn't gone down to the clerk's office, White would have been in jail unitl October, she adds.
"All of this came from someone dropping the ball," says Byers.