Skip navigation

PLN quoted in article re Florida escapes due to forged court documents

Orlando Sentinel, Jan. 1, 2013.
PLN quoted in article re Florida escapes due to forged court documents - Orlando Sentinel 2013

Policy changes announced as manhunt continues for escaped killers
Released killers registered as felons in Orange County three days after their release.

Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013

By Arelis R. Hernández, Jeff Weiner and Henry Pierson Curtis, Orlando Sentinel

8:55 p.m. EDT, October 18, 2013

As authorities continue their nationwide manhunt for a pair of convicted killers accused of conning their way out of lifetime prison sentences, corrections officials announced a policy change Friday intended to ensure they don't get fooled again.

Officials also confirmed that Charles Bernard Walker and Joseph Ivan Jenkins walked into the Orange County Jail days after they got out of prison — not to turn themselves in, but to re-enter society.

Jenkins and Walker, both 34, arrived at the jail Sept. 30 and Oct. 11, respectively, to register as felons, a requirement for newly released convicts that includes getting fingerprinted.

Within days, authorities would realize that the pair never should have gotten out of prison: Corrections officials had been duped by fraudulent court orders that said their sentences had been reduced.

The Florida Department of Corrections told judges across the state that, in light of the forgeries, orders that modify inmate sentences will now have to be verified by a judge before they're carried out.

"In light of the potential for fraudulent use of court papers, we believe that the additional step... is an important safeguard in ensuring the integrity of judicial process," corrections Secretary Michael Crews said in a letter to the state's chief judges.

Crews did not respond to additional questions from the Orlando Sentinel.

At a news conference Friday, Sheriff Jerry Demings said his agency is responsible for finding the men who are now on the loose due to the "system's breakdown." He called the situation "frustrating" for law officers.

Demings announced that a reward of up to $10,000 for information leading to each man will be advertised on electronic billboards across Orange County.

"We have representatives from our agency and others working full time around the clock, they're working overtime trying to locate these individuals," Sheriff Jerry Demings said, adding that the men are "likely still right here" in Orange.

'Very well-forged'

Orlando attorney Nicole Benjamin said she was horrified when she learned from news reporters that her name was used in the fraudulent documents that helped spring two murderers from state prison in North Florida.

"I completely had no idea," Benjamin said after she had a chance to examine the phony orders that freed them. "I don't have anything to do with this."

Benjamin, who has practiced law for 12 years, said she has never met Jenkins or Walker and doesn't represent murder defendants.

Before their release, Jenkins was serving a life sentence for a first-degree murder of a father of six in 1998, Walker for a second-degree murder conviction in 1999.

Orlando defense attorney Lyle Mazin analyzed the August paperwork that sprung Jenkins, as well as documents filed in a separate forgery attempt in June 2011. Despite minor flaws, "these are very, very well-forged documents," he said.

For example, the legal citations in the forged paperwork correspond to actual case law, and the Florida Bar identification numbers listed for the lawyers are correct.

But there are also red flags, most notably the timing: In the 2011 attempt, the motion asking to reduce Jenkins' sentencing and the order granting it were filed simultaneously.

"That was just a blatant red flag," Mazin said.

'Sophisticated and unusual'

It's not uncommon for prisoners to forge documents, but this scheme seems "fairly sophisticated and unusual" because of the knowledge required to pull it off, said John Webster, who heads a firm that helps inmates reduce their sentences.

Convicts like Jenkins and Walker who have been through the system many times become experts, he said.

"When it comes to procedure, you'd be shocked how much inmates know," he said.

It remains unclear who filed the phony paperwork with the Orange County Clerk of Court. Spokeswoman Leesa Bainbridge said anyone can file documents with the clerk.

Under state statute, "we don't have the discretion to pick and choose or pass judgment on what goes into that file," Bainbridge said.

Benjamin said she's alarmed that something wrongly bearing her name could wind up in a court file "that easy."

"It troubles me as an attorney that I'm going to need to take an extra step to protect myself," she said.

Filings from third parties can cause confusion, including in high profile cases.

In the weeks after George Zimmerman's murder acquittal, for example, a slew of new court paperwork appeared in his file from people unaffiliated with the case, including a two-page document asking to "amend the house of representatives."

There is a notable exception to open filing, Bainbridge said: Only a judge can file an order. But the forged orders that freed Walker and Jenkins appeared to have been signed by judges.

"This was a very professional job," she said.

Nothing new

Jenkins and Walker aren't the first convicts to get out of jail with phony paperwork. Though it's unclear how often such schemes work, there are other examples, including in Florida.

In October 2009, a 44-year-old Pinellas Park man accused of stealing and cashing checks, was released from jail after a document stating that "all charges filed and pending be dismissed" was filed with the local clerk's office, according to a Tampa Bay Times report.

Nydeed Nashaddai's freedom lasted less than a day before he was arrested again. There have been reports of similar escape attempts in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Wisconsin.

Getting caught is not a deterrent for the most desperate prisoners, said Alex Friedmann, a prison-reform advocate who edits Prison Legal News magazine.

"As we incarcerate more people for life, we have to realize these people have nothing to lose," he said.

The new procedure implemented by FDOC on Friday follows what other states, such as New York, have been doing for years.

"We only accept original orders," said Linda Foglia, a spokeswoman for the New York State Department of Correctional Services. "And then we verify the order, the seal and the signatures."