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5 Inmates Still at Large After Logjam

Defendants were among those freed from jail in May when an L.A. court refused to extend its hours. One is a suspect in a June homicide.

August 07, 2003|Li Fellers | Times Staff Writer

At least five defendants released from jail in May after officials failed to arraign them remain at large, the aftermath of a feud between L.A. County prosecutors and judges that all sides describe as embarrassing.

The defendants, accused of such crimes as carjacking, assault, and robbery, were among dozens of inmates released May 28 because their arraignment would have forced the court to stay open past the 4:30 p.m. closing time.

One of those set free is now wanted in connection with a murder he allegedly committed last month, increasing rancor between prosecutors and judges over who is to blame for the releases.

Los Angeles County Superior Court judges, grappling with cutbacks caused by the state budget crisis, decided that the court needed to enforce the 4:30 p.m. closing time to reduce overtime costs. They blame police and prosecutors for filing charges late. A Los Angeles prosecutors association, however, accuses the judges of placing penny-pinching before public safety.

The one thing everyone agrees on is that they can't let it happen again.

"No one wanted a repeat of what happened," said Judge Dan T. Oki. "Everyone agreed that was unacceptable."

The two sides had been sparring for months about whether arraignments should continue after 4:30 p.m. But the debate reached a head on May 28, the Wednesday after a long Memorial Day weekend. That day, 192 defendants -- more than three times the average caseload -- were scheduled. By 3:15 p.m., only 66 cases had been filed and 30 defendants had been arraigned.

Under the law, defendants who are not arraigned within 48 hours must be released.

Court transcripts describe an intense afternoon court session that day in which prosecutors struggled to get their cases moved through the system.

Commissioner Jeffrey M. Harkavy said Supervising Judges Oki, David S. Wesley and Carol H. Rehm instructed him to end arraignments at 4:30 p.m., regardless of how many defendants remained.

Both prosecutors and public defenders objected, offering to bring in extra staff and work into the night.

Prosecutors were concerned that some defendants -- no one knew which ones -- were close to their 48-hour limit and would be released; public defenders feared that their clients would remain in custody in violation of their rights. Harkavy assured the public defenders that those defendants would be released, according to the transcripts.

From 4:30 to 6 p.m., dozens of defendants streamed through and Harkavy told each one to return the next day.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Loren Naiman sought unsuccessfully to have about 15 defendants arraigned because he considered them the most dangerous. One of those was a carjacking suspect, Jerrell Patrick, who was on probation.

Harkavy tried to arraign Patrick or hold him for violating his probation, but did not have the court file to do so. Harkavy told Patrick to return the next day. The transcripts indicate no discussion in court about whether Patrick would be released.

He walked out of the Los Angeles County Jail that evening after authorities concluded he could no longer be held.

Patrick is now wanted in connection with the murder of a man in South Los Angeles on June 26.

Wesley said the court is not to blame for any of the releases. He said Patrick could have been kept behind bars because he had an outstanding arrest warrant for a traffic violation. The Los Angeles Police Department said officials performed warrant checks on all defendants released that day, including Patrick. But following Wesley's assertion, officials said this week that they are rechecking to see if an error was made.

Wesley said police could have rearrested the defendants on the same charges as a way of keeping them in custody. Police officials said they considered that option but were advised by the Los Angeles city attorney's office that they could not.

The Patrick case, Wesley said, shows how late prosecutors are in filing cases. Patrick's case, he said, was not submitted until 3:33 p.m. -- less than an hour before court was supposed to close.

"Do I feel responsible? No, I do not feel responsible for Jerrell Patrick," Wesley said.

The release comes in a year that Los Angeles courts have been tightening their belts because of the state's budget shortage, even closing some outlying courtrooms to save money. The judges said they never expected their efforts would result in defendants being released.

"The public doesn't want to hear this, but the public safety needs to be balanced against budget concerns," Oki said. "The court cannot afford to keep doing this. We do not have money."

In the end, about 30 defendants were released that evening. Of those, 11 did not return the next day and at least five are still at large.

Some prosecutors reject the judges' explanation and accuse them of setting an arbitrary deadline simply to prove a point.

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