Judge reverses suspension of prison employee who released Thanos

October 18, 1990|By William F. Zorzi Jr.

The former prison records supervisor suspended without pay for the early release of rapist and robber John F. Thanos was ordered back to work yesterday by a state hearing officer who said the Division of Correction's arguments against him were "faulty" and "cannot be logically justified."

John P. O'Donnell, the former records supervisor at Eastern Correctional Institution who signed the April 5 release papers for Thanos, was ordered to return to work at the Somerset County prison, where he became a correctional officer in July after three years as records supervisor.

Mr. O'Donnell, 50, was suspended without pay Oct. 4 for unspecified reasons involving the early release of Thanos, who was charged last month with killing three people. Correction officials have said that a March 9 Division of Correction policy on calculating so-called "good-time" credits for overlapping sentences had been misapplied in Thanos' release -- an assertion that Mr. O'Donnell contends is incorrect.

In a four-page decision, Eleanor A. Wilkinson, an administrative law judge with the state Office of Administrative Hearings, ordered that Mr. O'Donnell receive back pay and benefits, pending a personnel hearing on yet-undisclosed charges for his dismissal.

"Undeniably the erroneous release of this prisoner had tragic consequences," concluded Ms. Wilkinson. "But to reason back from these consequences that Mr. O'Donnell's continued employment poses a threat to the state's interests is faulty and cannot be logically justified."

Mr. O'Donnell said yesterday that based on the Division of Correction's arguments at the Oct. 10 hearing before Ms. Wilkinson, he expected to be ordered back to work. He also expressed relief at the favorable ruling in what is the first round of the fight to have him fired.

The former ECI records supervisor said that he continued to feel like a "scapegoat" in the case, especially since the new policy had been ordered by Bishop L. Robinson, state secretary of public safety and correctional services, and he had received approval from headquarters specifically for Thanos' release.

"The people responsible for Mr. Thanos' release are certainly going to be held accountable, and I'm not included among those responsible for that release," Mr. O'Donnell said.

The Division of Correction could appeal Ms. Wilkinson's decision by filing exceptions to the ruling with state Personnel Secretary Hilda E. Ford, said Stuart M. Nathan, an assistant attorney general representing the Division of Correction in the personnel matter.

Mr. Nathan declined to comment on the decision yesterday, saying he had not seen it. He also noted that an appeal of Ms. Wilkinson's ruling would be up to the Division of Correction.

Sgt. Gregory M. Shipley, spokesman for the Division of Correction, also declined to comment, saying that the agency had not reviewed the administrative law judge's ruling and that no decision had been made regarding an appeal.

At the hearing, Mr. Nathan charged that Mr. O'Donnell learned in a phone call from headquarters three weeks after Thanos' release that the new policy did not apply to inmates with sentences similar to his. He argued that Mr. O'Donnell should have acted to have Thanos arrested again, although he acknowledged that the phone conversation dealt with the policy in general terms -- not specifically with Thanos.

Mr. Nathan also said that Mr. O'Donnell missed a May 24 meeting on applying the policy and that he did not explain his absence.

Mr. Nathan argued that because Mr. O'Donnell picked and chose the rules he followed, his continued employment as a correctional officer could result in danger to the public and undermine public confidence in ECI and the Division of Correction.

But Ms. Wilkinson questioned that logic in her decision.

"Management was certainly aware of Mr. O'Donnell's alleged errors by the end of May. At that time they apparently did not view this behavior as serious enough to warrant any disciplinary action, let alone suspension, pending charges," she wrote.

"If they were so concerned with this employee's ability to follow rules, why did they shortly thereafter hire him as a correctional officer, a position demanding the highest adherence to rules and regulations?" Ms. Wilkinson asked.

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