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.


I agree with Hingeley...this time

Captain Obvious--Dave Chapman did not drop the ball. He said in the bond hearing that he didn't know that the grand jury meeting on August 20 found the evidence insufficient to indict Jennifer White. When I called Dave Chapman on September 21 to tell him the indictment was returned as "not a true bill," Dave Chapman fully cooperated in expediting the bond hearing at which Jennifer White was released. He did this, I believe, because he was as interested in seeing justice done as I was. Dave Chapman is not the problem. The question remains why for a month Paul Garrett felt he was justified in concealing the indictment, that was a public document, from defense counsel, the prosecutor, and the public, despite repeated requests from defense counsel to see the indictment.

Well, what in the heck has L'Herrou been doing since August 20th? Friday was Sept. 21. Didn't she wonder where was her client? Didn't she wonder if her client had another court date? Is the clerk's office in Richmond? No, it's conveniently in the basement of the very courthouse where they practice. It couldn't have been that inconvenient for Murtagh, Hingeley, or L'Herrou to go to the counter and ask for the records. Have they been on vacation for a month? Sounds like passing the buck to me. Yeah, yeah, over-worked, underpaid. The clerk's office is not supposed to serve as the secretary to every defense lawyer in town. The public defender's office has far more complaints from its clients than the clerk's office has. Perhaps a little less time being community activists and more time on the job?

I dubt very seriously if Paul Garrett has time to engage in a silly debate here on a daily basis. Paranoia is a very dangerous trait, people!

Unbelievable. THis guy needs to be recalled. He should not be allowed to finish his 8 year term, which he is somewhere in the middle of. How many more innocent people will serve time because of his callous incompetence?

There have been quite a few concerns about that office held until now in "secret" among conscientious defense,prosecutors,other attorneys
and also conscientious law officers...yes, there are some left. The whole system has not "melted down".

Garrett has quite a reputation of being difficult to
get along with and some of his staff are questionably competent.
A fact until now unexposed. I side with the defenders.

The entire criminal justice system is melting down slowly. The above event will be the norm soon instead of the exception. EVERYBODY involved is to blame.