Convict Flees – Courts Free!: Accountability is still non-existent
For convicted felon Warren Watkins, Christmas came early this year.
Despite being convicted for drug offenses in 2006, sentenced to five to ten years in absentia (he fled before sentencing), and arrested in Georgia earlier this year, Watkins was released by the Philadelphia court system in June. Several weeks later, he was arrested yet again, and is finally serving two concurrent sentences in state prison. The Bulletin has conducted an exhaustive investigation of how and why this occurred, and is attempting to ascertain the frequency of such situations.
Following is a timeline of the Warren Watkins case, according to official Court of Common Pleas documents. Note: Watkins had a criminal record before this case, having been found guilty on four charges involving the illegal carrying of firearms in public places, possessing instruments of crime, and carrying a weapon with altered and/or obliterated identification markings (two of the charges were felonies). He was sentenced to probation.
August 2005: Watkins is arrested on multiple charges. Bail is set at $15,000, of which 10% is posted.
October 3, 2006: Watkins is found guilty on three narcotics-related charges. He is released pending sentencing, scheduled for November 14. Facing 8 ½ to 17 years in jail, Watkins flees, becoming a fugitive. The FBI becomes involved in the case.
November 14, 2006: Watkins is sentenced in absentia to 5 to 10 years by Judge Gregory Smith, who presided over the trial. Judge Smith orders his sentences to run concurrently as opposed to consecutively (one was for 5 to 10, and the other 3 ½ to 7 years.)
March 2, 2008: Watkins is arrested by the FBI in Georgia, and extradited to Pennsylvania. He arrives at the Philadelphia Detention Center on May 5.
According the Philadelphia Prison System, Watkins was being held for three reasons at this time: 1) the criminal bench warrant stemming from his fugitive status, 2) a domestics relations issue in Family Court, and 3) a Traffic Court matter.
June 2, 2008: Watkins is transported by the Sheriff to Common Pleas Court to appear before Judge Smith, where the Judge lifts the bench warrant. According to the Prisons Department, a "release order" is issued by Judge Smith at this time (see attached Release of Prisoner order). Judge Smith’s office denies this occurred, instead claiming that a "commit order" should have been present. A commit order is a document remanding a convict to prison. For some as yet undetermined reason, neither the Prisons Department nor the Sheriff was in possession of the commit order.
Despite the release order regarding the criminal matter, Watkins is returned to the detention center to address the two pending civil matters.
June 3: The day after the release order was issued, Watkins is again transported to the courts. The charges in both Family and Traffic Court are "resolved." Accordingly, he is released back onto the streets of Philadelphia.
June 12: Another bench warrant for Watkins is issued by Judge Smith. According to a source close to the case, the only reason Judge Smith was alerted to Watkins’ release was because a Watkins family member alerted the court that he was "back in the neighborhood." In effect, the system did not realize Watkins had been released, and, potentially, would have never learned of the error. This, despite the fact that the criminal justice system took delivery of a state-of-the-art computer system that allows all inter-related agencies to share information. Prior to this system, each entity had its own database with its own information, all with "firewalls" denying access to other organizations, such as the police, courts, prisons, parole boards, the DA, etc.
June 24: Watkins is arrested again, and is finally serving his sentence in state prison.
In its attempt to research the facts in this case, The Bulletin was originally told that the case file at the Clerk of Quarter Sessions was "un-locatable." Instead, it was suggested to contact the Bench Warrant division, the Juvenile Division in Family Court (due to erroneous information that the Family Court matter was a criminal case), the Juvenile Clerk of Quarter Sessions, Judge Gregory Smith’s office, Judge Kevin Dougherty’s office (who is Administrative Judge, Family Court Division), Traffic Court, Family Court Administration, the Sheriff’s Office, the Philadelphia Detention Center, the state Department of Corrections, the Prison Liaison Office, Office of the Prothonotary, the Establishment Unit, and the Support and Compliance Unit. Despite that advice, the file was ultimately located at the Clerk of Quarter Sessions. Inexplicably, the file lacked any information relating to the June court proceedings. The Bulletin has been told that the jacket case file at the Philadelphia Detention Center is not public information, and thus far, the paper has been denied access. Attempts to obtain these documents continue.
The Watkins case presents a number of troubling questions regarding the criminal justice system, in terms of both efficiencies and policy:
1) Why are convicted felons, especially those with prior criminal records involving narcotics and weapons, being released onto the streets pending sentencing? While each case has its own merits, the District Attorney’s office, as a general rule, opposes such a practice. Some judges claim this allows a convict to "get his affairs in order." However, since most defendants are free on bail during the trial anyway, they have ample opportunity to handle their affairs in the event of a guilty verdict.
2) Based on Mr. Watkins prior criminal record and his unlawful flight, why did Judge Smith still give him a "break" by allowing the two sentences to run concurrently? He could have ordered the two sentences to run consecutively, thereby giving Watkins 8 ½ to 17 years instead of the 5 to 10 he received.
3) Why doesn’t the law allow for additional charges to be filed by the DA’s office for this type of situation, such as escape, evasion or absconding? Because Watkins was free on bail when he fled, and therefore didn’t escape from a detention center, the law doesn’t provide an opportunity for further action by the DA. In effect, for convicted felons who are released pending sentencing, there is little reason NOT to flee.
4) Where was Judge Smith’s commit order? Did it accompany Watkins on his return from Georgia? Did it accompany him to Judge Smith’s courtroom? Was it in the "case jacket" that is placed inside his waistband? If not, why not?
5) As a follow up to # 4, with or without a commit order, why was Watkin’s status as a convicted and SENTENCED felon, who had been on the lam for 1 ½ years, not prominently displayed on top of every one of his case files?
6) What is the official policy regarding an individual’s criminal history accompanying him to either criminal or civil court?
7) Despite the capabilities of the new computer system, how was Warren Watkins released? Where were the "red flags?" If the objective of this technology was to allow all entities to "talk" with each other so that one hand knew what the other is doing, then the system failed spectacularly. Even more startling is the fact that Watkins’ release only came to light because of a voluntary call from a family member. If not for that, a dangerous felon could still be walking among citizens.
8) How often does this type of situation occur? Despite being repeatedly told that the media "over-sensationalizes" such "one in a thousand" cases, neither The Bulletin nor any entity in the criminal justice system is in a position to make that claim. The facts on how the Watkins situation unfolded speak for themselves — a convicted and sentenced felon was officially released before serving any of his sentence. The system is simply not equipped to identify and alert the authorities when this type of event happens, and it must be modified so that it doesn’t happen again. Until then, no one knows with any certainty how often this is occurring.
9) Who will be held accountable for this situation? What changes will be implemented? When?
The Bulletin will be aggressively following up on this situation, and will be seeking specific answers from Philadelphia’s leaders, including the Mayor, City Council, judges and law enforcement officials. The case file will be available on The Bulletin’s website.
Chris Freind can be reached at [email protected]