Spelling error proved fatal

Wanted teen released by mistake, then shot

April 15, 2008|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,Sun reporter

A spelling error led court officials to free a wanted teenager who had been caught after he fled an out-of-state treatment facility, according to a review of court documents.

Shortly after Jeffrey Clinton Butler was mistakenly let go, he was fatally shot once in the face outside a friend's house in Southwest Baltimore on March 23.

The 18-year-old, who had escaped from a Coatesville, Pa., facility in November, was arrested by city police in mid-March on a disorderly conduct charge. He gave authorities a fake name, but police learned his identity from his fingerprints.

However, the criminal record those fingerprints linked to had the `e' and the `r' transposed in Butler's first name. As a result, a computer check of "Jeffery" Clinton Butler did not turn up the warrant for his arrest in connection with the escape.

Butler was let back on the street seven days before he was killed.

A state Division of Pretrial Detention and Services employee likely made the spelling error more than 18 months ago, when Butler, then 17, was arrested and charged as an adult with carjacking.

His case was later transferred to juvenile court, where Circuit Judge Sylvester Cox sentenced him to the Concern Treatment Unit for Boys in Coatesville until his 21st birthday or until he released him, according to court records.

The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Corrections "takes full responsibility for the error involving the Butler case," said Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman. "Mr. Butler's outstanding warrant should have been caught during his processing. We have been working with other criminal justice agencies to put additional controls in place to make sure this does not happen again."

The spelling error initiated the first of two missed opportunities to return the 18-year-old to state custody after he had fled from the Concern program.

On Nov. 20, seven days after Butler ran away, Cox signed the warrant for his arrest. But Baltimore police did not attempt to serve the warrant until March 24, the day after Butler was fatally shot.

Weeks after Butler's death, Baltimore police remain unable to explain why they didn't attempt to serve the warrant for more than four months, said Sterling Clifford, a spokesman for the agency. Clifford said there are a number of problems with the service of juvenile warrants that state and city officials are trying to remedy.

There are approximately 820 unserved juvenile warrants or detainers in Baltimore's court system, according to state officials.

To learn the story behind each warrant, city police must run a manual search on each name because their access to the city's juvenile court records system is limited, Clifford said. Police can't run customized reports that would target at-risk youth or repeat offenders, but Clifford said the department hopes to be able to do so soon.

The Warrant Apprehension Task Force "gets their information to do their work from a variety of different sources: the state's attorney, the district commander, the head of the task force, and the Department of Juvenile Services," Clifford said. "They're not going to know that a kid just ran away from his commitment unless someone flags the case for them."

One way for the task force to have obtained more information in Butler's case would have been to rely on the original warrant for his arrest, which described his runaway status.

But Clifford said Butler's warrant was not in the department's possession until March 21, as part of a new initiative between the Police Department and the state's Department of Juvenile Services to serve outstanding juvenile warrants. Butler's name was included in a list for the Warrant Apprehension Task Force's March sweep, its second under the new program.

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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