Fla. Murderers Released: Erroneous releases "not uncommon" as prisons accept more paperwork, expert says

Joseph Jenkins and Charles Walker were serving long-term prison sentences, but both managed to escape using similarly forged documents that granted early release. Now state and local authorities are trying to get them back behind bars. WKMG-TV's Mike DeForest reports.
Convicted murderers Joseph Jenkins and Charles Walker are on the run after being mistakenly released from prison
CBS/Florida Department of Law Enforcement

Updated 6:24 p.m. EST

(CBS) - As Florida authorities search for two convicted murderers set free due to forged paperwork, many are asking, how could something like this happen?

As it turns out, so-called "releases in error" are not uncommon. In fact, former New York City Corrections Chief Martin Horn told CBS News' Crimesider that it's a problem that "bedevils" jails and prisons across the nation - and technology has only made it worse.

"Anyone can fax anything," says Horn, who is now a lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Executive Director of the New York State Sentencing Commission. "When I was coming up, you had to physically go to the jail and deliver something. But now they accept faxed documents, scanned documents, and emailed documents."

Indeed, the spokeswoman for Florida's Orange County Clerk of Courts, the office that passed the forged paperwork granting the release of Charles Walker and Joseph Jenkins along to the department of corrections, told Crimesider on Thursday that "thousands of pieces of paper" come through the office and there is "no way to backtrack and say whether this was mailed in, faxed, or left in a dropbox."

According to the Associated Press, in the wake of the releases of Walker and Jenkins, Florida is changing their policy regarding prisoner releases. Corrections Secretary Michael Crews said prison officials will verify with judges - and not just court clerks - before releasing prisoners early.

Horn, who has consulted with jails and prisons across the country on how to minimize "releases in error," says that such a "system" is bound to cause problems.

"You have to have really tight procedures in place," says Horn. "There's a lot of paperwork flowing back and forth and it's hard to keep track of - but critically important."

Last year, New Mexico reportedly began re-assessing how it processed prisoner releases after at least eight inmates were reportedly set free based on faulty paperwork. In Wyoming, a 2012 investigation revealed oversight deficiencies in the wake of the erroneous early release of a man serving time for aggravated assault. And in Pennsylvania, three inmates from one prison were reportedly released in error during the summer of 2010.

Horn suggests that a receiving system should include an identification check for whomever brings a document into the clerk or corrections office, and someone in the office signing for it. In addition, he advises correctional systems not to release anyone based on documents that are faxed, scanned or emailed.

"You need to have a hard copy or an original document with a signature and a raised seal," says Horn.

The documents that freed Walker and Jenkins, both of whom were serving life sentences for murder, look legitimate. Each is titled "Order Granting Motion to Correct Illegal Sentence," and bears the forged signature of Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Belvin Perry.

"It is quite evident that someone had some knowledge of the judicial system and how the judicial system operates," Judge Perry told CBS affiliate WKMG.

"I think it was lifted off another document and placed on that document which is not hard to do," he said.

Walker was sentenced to life in prison in 1999 on a charge of second-degree murder. Jenkins was also supposed to be serving a life sentence on a 1998 first-degree murder, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

Within days of being released, both Walker and Jenkins registered as felons in Orange County.

In a press conference Friday afternoon, Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings called the men's releases "a system failure" and pleaded with residents to come forward if they knew of either Walker or Jenkins' whereabouts, and announced a $5,000 reward for information leading to their arrests. He said repeatedly that he believes both men are still in the Orange County area.

"These individuals murdered individuals in our community and so we want to bring them back to justice," Demings said.

Complete coverage of the released Florida murderers on Crimesider

  • Julia Dahl

    Julia Dahl writes about crime and justice for