After spending a year in jail with no trial and no formal charges, Martin R. Henn may go free today.
Henn, a 54-year-old homeless man from northern Anne Arundel County, has been imprisoned in the Baltimore City Detention Center since his arrest July 16, 1990, for allegedly setting fire to a car in South Baltimore. But Henn was never formally charged, brought to trial or offered bail.
Officials have scrambled the last few days to figure out how Henn slipped into judicial oblivion. At the same time, officials have moved quickly to dispose of the arson charge and an unrelated public drunkenness case pending against him since March 1990 in Anne Arundel County.
There may be others in Henn's predicament.
LaMont Flanagan, acting jail commissioner, said his staff has turned up another six inmates who may have languished in jail for three or four months without a court date. He said his staff is working to get speedy hearings for them or to get them released on bail.
Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Ellen M. Heller, who earlier called Henn's experience a "nightmare," was to consider whether to release him today.
"This is certainly the strangest case and most difficult one we have experienced to date," said Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms.
Simms and other judicial officials said Henn's case was unusual. His year in legal limbo apparently resulted from a mistaken entry on his jail record, compounded by miscommunication and inaction after the original error was found.
Here is what happened, according to Flanagan:
The case began to go awry Aug. 2, 1990, when Henn was brought from the jail to District Court to answer a public drunkenness charge filed against him in April 1990.
He was given a suspended sentence on that charge, and the court also let him off with time served on two counts of malicious destruction that were related to the arson case. He was returned to jail to await a hearing on the arson charge, set for Aug. 14, 1990.
But Henn was not taken to court that day. The jail staff had erroneously recorded that he had been released 12 days earlier with all charges disposed of. He was still in jail, however.
The jail staff discovered its mistake Aug. 30, but it was not until Oct. 5 that they asked the state's attorney's office to do something about the arson charge against Henn.
Apparently nothing happened until July 11, when an employee in the state pretrial services division came across a computer record that showed Henn had been in jail for a year and still had no trial date.
The employee, Janet Yodris, notified the Baltimore prosecutor's office. Prosecutors took the case to a grand jury, which indicted Henn. Simms said indicting Henn was the quickest way of bringing him to court.
When Henn came to court last week, Heller was astonished to learn he had been in jail for more than a year. Henn apparently never contacted any authorities about his lengthy imprisonment.
"It's unusual," said Simms. "Most defendants, if they are in jail, will obtain counsel or contact by letter a judge, the clerk or the state's attorney and request a speedy trial. He did not do that."
"I just don't know why he was there that long," said Anne Arundel County District Court Judge Clayton Greene Jr., who placed Henn's public drunkenness charge on the inactive docket yesterday. "I don't know why he didn't ask for a speedy disposition."
Joy L. Phillips, supervisor in the Baltimore public defender's office, said Henn had never asked her office to defend him.
"We don't know about a defendant until he comes into court," Phillips said. "He didn't come into court."
But Flanagan, the jail commissioner, said it was not unusual for inmates to lose track of their court appearances.
"With the volume of cases the system deals with every day, it is unavoidable that someone is going to get lost," Flanagan said.
Flanagan said that the mishandling of Henn's case occurred while the jail was under city control. The city transferred the facility to the state July 1 to ease its financial burden. Flanagan said the inmate review procedures he has begun should prevent any more cases like Henn's. The state is working to lower the jail population in order to comply with a federal court order mandating an end to overcrowding.
Meanwhile, Henn may go free altogether, if the charges against him can be resolved.
At Heller's urging, Greene brought Henn to Annapolis for a brief hearing yesterday to dispose of the drunkenness charge.
Simms said prosecutors wanted to make sure that Henn has a place to live and access to alcoholism treatment before they drop the arson charge.
And, Flanagan said, there is still the matter of an outstanding warrant from 1986 for violation of probation.