National manhunt for Florida 'escapees' freed by paperwork: Saboteur in Justice?

Florida justice officials have a lot of questions to answer after forged documents were used to set free two convicted killers recently. They're both still at large.

Florida Department. of Corrections/AP
Photos provided by the Florida Department. of Corrections show Joseph Jenkins, left and Charles Walker. Walker and Joseph Jenkins were mistakenly released from prison in Franklin County, Fla., in late September and early October. According to authorities, the two convicted murderers were released with forged documents. A manhunt is under way for the two men.

Is it really a jailbreak if a state like Florida turns a convict loose, and then does nothing when that “escapee” walks back into a county jail and registers as a felon before, once, again, taking his leave?

To be sure, Florida justice officials have a lot of questions to answer after forged documents were used to set free two convicted killers – Joseph Jenkins and Charles Walker – in late September and early October. They're both still at large.

One question is whether there’s a saboteur within the Florida justice system who is forging release documents, which appears to have happened in the case of the two men. Officials have found at least two other cases of document forgeries since being alerted to the escape this week.

Another is how the men were, in essence, able to escape a second time after they – this time obeying the law, apparently to keep up the ruse – registered in their home counties as felons. If convicts don’t register in Florida, the state puts out arrest warrants.

Florida officials are furiously investigating a series of events that are mystifying on their face, and, officials admit, raise questions about prison protocols and processes – all while raising the specter that criminals could have a mole, or saboteur, inside the justice system itself. The strange escapes come at the tail end of a 10-year-period where escapes from Florida prisons have more than doubled even as the total prison population has declined.

"It is now clear that the use of forged court documents to obtain release from prison is an ongoing threat which all law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, court clerks and prison officials must address and stop," State Attorney Jeffrey Ashton told CBS News. Mr. Ashton alerted police after the family of one of the men’s victims contacted him, expressing shock that he was out and about.

In both cases, documents forged with both the prosecutor’s and judge’s signature had been placed into the files of Messrs. Jenkins and Walker, apparently in hopes that clerks would come across the orders during routine work. According to the orders, the men’s sentences were up; in fact, both were serving life sentences for murders committed in 1998 and 1999.

Bob Wesley, Mr. Jenkins’ attorney, told the Associated Press that he didn’t think the plot was “a cunning master plan.”

To further deepen the state’s culpability, both men walked into an Orlando sheriff’s department – 300 miles from where they were imprisoned, in the Panhandle – to register as felons, which is required by Florida law. The men were fingerprinted and photographed, their records checked and cleared, and allowed to walk out.

Already, Florida has instituted an inmate release double-check system that requires a judge to verify orders that modify inmate sentences. The men were released even though it’s very unusual for prosecutors to ask for a milder sentence for a convict.

“In light of the errors, the Corrections Department changed the way it verifies early releases and state legislators promised to hold investigative hearings to figure out how the documents – complete with case numbers and a judge's forged signature – duped the system,” Associated Press reporters Mike Schneider and Brendan Farrington write.

But Florida is not the only state to have been fooled by forgeries. Similar escapes have occurred in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in the last three years.

Orange County, Fla., Sheriff Jerry Demings said at a press conference Friday that the situation is “frustrating” for police, and blamed a “system breakdown” for the escape.

Escapes in Florida have been on the rise, going from 75 in 2002 to 171 in 2012, according to the Florida Department of Corrections. Florida has about 100,000 inmates at any given point in time, third behind California and Texas.

Authorities are offering $10,000 rewards for anyone who helps police find the two men. The search has turned into a nationwide manhunt.

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