Driver in fatal crash never jailed

April 05, 1994|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Staff Writer

Convicted of homicide by motor vehicle after his car struck and killed a 15-year-old girl, Clarence A. Plitt was supposed to begin serving a six-month jail term in 1986.

But Plitt, who was drunk at the time of the accident, remained a free man for eight years -- until late last month when a Baltimore County court clerk accidentally noticed that Plitt had not spent a day behind bars.

Cases such as Plitt's were not supposed to slip through the cracks in the justice system after 1989, when officials reviewed outstanding cases after an embarrassing incident involving a convicted murderer who was allowed to remain free on bond for five years after his appeal was denied.

But records show that is exactly what happened with Plitt. No one ever told him it was time to go to jail, and he even had his probation lifted while he was free.

Records show that Plitt, then 44, was convicted of homicide by motor vehicle in June 1985. He was charged in the death of Beverly Jewell, who was trying to cross Martin Boulevard with her stepsister in June 1984.

Circuit Court Judge Leonard S. Jacobson sentenced Plitt to six months in jail, plus five years' probation. He was released on a property bond -- the equity in his house -- while he appealed to the Court of Special Appeals. He lost that appeal on April 18, 1986.

But he never reported to jail, and records show he applied for and received early release from his probation in April 1989.

It wasn't until March 24, 1994, when Chief Criminal Clerk Patricia Fisher reviewed the file to replace some lost computer data, that anyone noticed Plitt had never served his term. He was arrested on a bench warrant March 25.

Now incarcerated at the Courthouse Court facility of the Baltimore County Detention Center in Towson, Plitt declined to be interviewed. But Deborah Sprinkel, his ex-wife, whom he called at 2 a.m. after his arrest, said he told her he was shocked to be suddenly arrested while he was at work at Bethlehem Steel Corp.

"He thought this was all over. It was a shock," she said, explaining that she and Plitt, although divorced, have remained friends. Plitt still attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, she said, and has led a clean and sober life since the accident.

Mrs. Sprinkel said she helped Plitt retain attorney David B. Shapiro, who said yesterday that he will seek a court hearing to determine whether there is a way to free Plitt.

Chief Circuit Judge Edward A. DeWaters Jr., who signed the warrant for Plitt's arrest, said there is little chance that Plitt will be excused from serving his time.

The case is similar to that of convicted murderer Lawrence William Carter, who was arrested in November 1989 after relatives of his victim learned that he had never begun serving a 20-year prison term after losing his appeal in late 1984. He, too, was free on appeal bond but never was notified to report for jail. Carter is still in prison.

After that case came to light, Court Clerk Susanne Mensh said a review of all appeal bond cases by her office, aided by the county state's attorney, found no other instances of convicted felons not serving jail time.

The clerk's office had changed procedures for handling appeal bond cases in 1987 to require individual reviews.

Deputy State's Attorney Sue A. Schenning, who helped with the review, said yesterday that the Plitt case was on a list compiled by the clerk's office but was never presented to her office for checking.

"It's just a mistake on the clerk's office," she said.

Ms. Mensh said she knew nothing about the latest problem until she returned from vacation yesterday. She could not pinpoint the cause of the mix-up, she said.

The case began just after 9 p.m. on June 26, 1984, when Beverly Jewell and her stepsister, Shirlene Conklin, 17, of the 5000 block

Wright Ave. in Baltimore were crossing Martin Boulevard near Kelso Road and Plitt's southbound car struck Beverly, throwing her body 106 feet, according to court records.

The driver of the 1977 Monte Carlo didn't apply its brakes until it was 300 feet beyond the point of impact, police found. The driver got out, told Shirlene to call 911, and then went to do the same himself.

Plitt, who lived on Transverse Avenue not far from the accident scene, registered a blood alcohol level of 0.22 percent in a breath test administered by county police less than two hours later. The legal standard for drunken driving is 0.10 percent.

The driver, who had no criminal record, told police he had drunk a few beers but wasn't inebriated. He was "upset and crying" at the police station, Officer William M. Crabbs testified.

When he appeared before Judge Jacobson for sentencing in August 1985, the judge said he was disturbed to learn that after staying dry for seven weeks after the accident, Plitt had resumed occasional social drinking. He imposed six months' jail time, saying, "This kind of senseless killing has got to stop." But he recommended work-release.

Plitt, who had been free on his own recognizance, was then released on $5,520 bond -- the equity on his home -- while his lawyer, Russell White, filed an appeal.

The appeals court upheld the guilty finding in April 1986. But Plitt was not told to report to jail, even in 1989, when he applied to have his five-year probation ended early.

Mr. White and Judge Jacobson said yesterday that they didn't recall the case.

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