Indianapolis Star

5th freed inmate accused of murder

December 12, 2004
By Vic Ryckaert
Indianapolis Star

Prosecutor calls releases 'Russian roulette'

With the Marion County Jail packed to capacity, court officials freed Lamar Blount before his court date.

About a month after he was released in early October, police allege, Blount and an accomplice shot and killed a man after an argument.

Blount, 18, now is the fifth man who has faced murder charges after being released from Marion County Jail before their trials because of crowding. The four others have been convicted, and three of them have been sentenced.

Since 2001, more than 9,100 inmates -- including nearly 2,000 this year -- have been freed because the jails had no more room, according to the Marion County Justice Agency.

"It's playing Russian roulette with the lives of the people in Marion County, and that's a game we ought not to be playing," said Marion County Prosecutor Carl Brizzi.

Most of those held in Marion County Jail are awaiting trial. Without enough room to hold everyone accused of a serious crime, officials have to decide who stays and who goes.

Blount's case is just the latest to draw attention to the long-simmering issue of jail crowding, which has put Marion County officials at odds for decades. Police blame judges for freeing potentially violent people. Judges blame the City-County Council for not spending enough to jail accused criminals before trial.

Although emergency releases of inmates have declined since the Arrestee Processing Center opened last year, some law enforcement officials say pressure to keep the jail population below a federal cap of 1,135 inmates continues to put the public at risk.

Many inmates get out on reduced bonds, while some, like Blount, get released despite a record of failing to show up in court.

This year is expected to result in a record number of warrants for failure to appear in court. One such warrant was issued for Blount.

"We make the best choices we can, and some of them turn out to be wrong," said Marion Superior Court Judge William Young, who oversees the emergency release of county inmates and other court functions at the Arrestee Processing Center.

Long arrest record

Blount was 16 in March 2003, when police say they found him driving a stolen car with a pocket full of crack cocaine. He had a long juvenile record, with true findings for trespassing, conversion, criminal mischief and arson.

In September 2003, Blount was convicted as an adult of cocaine possession. He was ordered to serve 30 days in jail and a year of probation.

Court records show he skipped several meetings with his probation officer and missed two urine tests. He also failed to appear in court in September 2004.

Blount was arrested Oct. 6 on a charge of violating his probation and booked into the Arrestee Processing Center about 6:40 p.m. Marion County Jail's population had been near the cap for more than a week when Commissioner Alex Murphy freed Blount about 2-1/2 hours later.

Making the call

When deciding who should be freed because of crowding, judges consider an inmate's criminal history, employment status, residency and other factors.

But details of Blount's probation violations and juvenile record were not available to Murphy, one of four commissioners who work at the Arrestee Processing Center.

The county's 1980s-era computer database system allowed Murphy to access only slim details concerning Blount. Most of Blount's prior crimes were handled in juvenile court, and for privacy reasons juvenile records are not stored in the county's general computer system.

Young said that if court officials had known about Blount's background, they might have chosen to release someone else.

Blount was scheduled for a court appearance Oct. 22 but didn't show up. A warrant was issued for his arrest.

"(Blount) failed to appear in court. That in and of itself should be enough to lock somebody up. Now so many people are on probation or violate probation that there's nowhere to put them," said Brizzi, the prosecutor.

Before officers could arrest Blount, police say, he and Adrian Beeler, 21, shot John Williams, 25, and attempted to kill Lawrence Williams in a home in the 6100 block of Commodore Drive.

Blount was arrested Tuesday in connection with John Williams' death and had an initial hearing Thursday. He is being held without bond at the Marion County Jail.

While Blount awaits trial on murder charges, Marion County officials continue to worry that dangerous criminals will get out of jail early and commit more crimes. Friday's jail population stood at 1,077, about 60 under the cap.

"We're so concerned about keeping the jail under the cap that public safety becomes a secondary concern," said Marion Superior Court Judge Mark Stoner, who supervises the county's probation system.

Working the system

Judges say the criminals have learned how to work the flaws to their advantage. Since 1998, the number of warrants issued for failure to appear has increased from 13,745 in 1997 to a projected 20,674 by the end of this year.

"People are getting killed, and nobody cares about coming to court anymore," said Cale Bradford, the presiding judge of the county's 32 superior courts.

Marion County isn't alone. Cities and counties throughout the nation face similar concerns, although cases such as Blount's aren't typical.

"The fact that someone was murdered should not be minimized, but from a statistical point of view, the number (of released felons who commit murder) is probably relatively small," said Alvin W. Cohn, a corrections expert.

Cohn, who has worked as a consultant with the U.S. Justice Department, said many communities try to hold down jail populations by carefully managing who gets released. The desire is for a solid set of criteria to be met before releasing inmates, he said.

While some may believe the answer is to build more jails, Marion County Sheriff Frank Anderson said the entire justice system must be fixed.

"We just can't keep putting a Band-Aid on a very serious wound," Anderson said.

Bradford, the presiding judge, said the justice system is underfunded and had asked county leaders to create seven new courts in the 2005 budget. Instead, city and county leaders cut the court's budget by $1.9 million.

"The choice to let that guy (Blount) out was made by the people responsible for funding local government, the City-County Council and the executive branch," Bradford said.

Rhetoric and solutions

Mayor Bart Peterson and Mary Moriarty Adams, chairwoman of the council's Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee, agree the county needs more prosecutors, public defenders and judges, but they say Bradford's rhetoric is exacerbating the crisis.

"We clearly have a broken system when dangerous criminals are let out on the streets," Peterson said. "It's evidence of how serious a problem this is that some people have resorted to finger-pointing. We've got to come together as a community and find solutions."

While officials agree that the county needs more judges, Brizzi wants more jail space also.

"When you have . . . murders as a result of not having anywhere to keep offenders, that's a serious problem," Brizzi said. "What do you do with people who chose to disobey the law? You've got to lock them up."