CHARLESTON – Kanawha County Circuit Court Judge Carrie Webster’s accidental release of a prisoner earlier this year brought a bigger problem to a head, the state Supreme Court says in a report released Aug. 8.

That problem, the court says, is the varying filing systems in county courts.

“(M)any users of the Kanawha County Circuit Clerk’s Office processes are confused by them,” the report says.

“Some of that office’s users have called it ‘an error magnet’ in the way that motions can result in the creation of separate case numbers and several different numbers are often used in reference to a single case and, further, that separate case numbers can actually appear to be completely separate cases when in fact they are not.”

In response, the court has selected 14 counties to be pilot counties for the roll-out of an electronic operating system provided by Software Systems of Morgantown. Those counties are Berkeley, Braxton, Cabell, Hampshire, Harrison, Jefferson, Lewis, Lincoln, Marion, Morgan, Ohio, Randolph, Upshur and Wood.

Software Systems will partner with On-Line Information Services of Alabama to provide e-filing and electronic bill-paying for purposes of the pilot.

The issue began in March when the Charleston Gazette published a story detailing the accidental release of Jeremy Carter, a man who was incarcerated at South Central Regional Jail. There was confusion surrounding a group of dismissal orders Webster had filed.

Carter had been arrested for attempted kidnapping.

The article reported Webster intended to dismiss a motion for a psychiatric evaluation in the case.

Instead, she was notified that she dropped the entire case, and Carter had been released from the South Central Regional Jail, the story reported.

Webster said March 10 that she made the comments based on the limited information she had at the time.

“Upon prior inquiry with the clerk’s staff and subsequent review of the relevant case files, I learned that the Circuit Clerk’s staff had sent SCRJ a ‘Jail Release Form’ stating that Mr. Carter’s ‘fugitive and kidnapping [charges]’ were dismissed,” Webster said.

“The clerk’s office advised that the release was executed pursuant to a dismissal order entered by the court on Feb. 28.”

However, the dismissal order was entered not in Carter’s criminal case but in a case classified as miscellaneous that was filed by Carter’s attorney and sought approval for a psychiatric evaluation of Carter.

Webster said the dismissal order did not include directions to dismiss Carter’s criminal case.

Carter was alleged to have attempted to kidnap a child from a vehicle in South Charleston in 2012.

“Importantly, the dismissal order did not include nor direct the circuit clerk to dismiss Case No. 12-F-2685 (i.e. the attempted kidnapping charge) because the case is at pre-indictment status, which means the case has been ‘bound over’ to grand jury for further consideration, and is not actively pending on the court’s docket,” Webster said.

“However, notwithstanding the absence of any language or court ordered directive to do so, the Jail Release Form stated that 12-F-2685 had been dismissed. It is… undisputed that Mr. Carter would not have been released if SCRJ had not received a jail release form from the circuit clerk advising that the attempted kidnapping case (12-F-2685) was dismissed.

“In fact, bond in the amount of $150,000 dollars full surety was set on 10-16-12, and remained unposted when the case was dismissed.”

There was another dismissal order in a case involving Carter. It concerned a fugitive warrant issued for him in Tennessee and was also classified as a criminal miscellaneous case.

“(T)he court concludes that Mr. Carter’s release resulted from a mistake made on the jail release form, which incorrectly stated that Case Number 12-F-2685 (the attempted kidnapping charge) was dismissed,” Webster said.

“It is the jail release form, and not the court’s dismissal order, that triggered the mistaken release of Mr. Carter.”

The court’s report says counties will not be expected to pay for the installation, maintenance and operations of the unified information system.

It adds that a review committee of clerks, judges and attorneys will be appointed to help create and improve the operating system, and OLIS will work with the Supreme Court and State Bar on a series of continuing education classes for lawyers to learn how to e-file.

“The Court has also made it clear that this is to be one of the Administrative Office’s highest priorities and that the pilot counties are to be up and running during the next year, barring unforeseen complications,” the report concludes.

“After the outcomes are reviewed in the pilot counties, the Court may, at that time, ask to review additional vendors’ systems or it may continue to contract with the pilot-period providers.

“In any case, after the pilot period has been completed, all of the state’s counties will ultimately be merged into that single operating system, all at no cost to their counties.”

From the West Virginia Record: Reach John O’Brien at jobrienwv@gmail.com.

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