The Suspect in the Murder of a Colorado Corrections Official Had Been Mistakenly Released from Prison. How Is That Possible?

Evan Ebel
Paroled inmate Evan Spencer Ebel, 28, the former Colorado inmate and white supremacist at the center of a two-state mystery, is dead after a high-speed chase and shootout with Texas deputies March 21, 2013.

Photo by Colorado Department of Corrections, File/AP

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There’s a strange and unfortunate coda to my story from yesterday about the possibility that white supremacist prison gangs have assassinated prosecutors and corrections officials in Colorado and Texas. On Monday afternoon, Colorado’s 11th Judicial District issued a statement revealing that, due to a clerical error, Evan Ebel, the alleged prison gang member suspected of killing Colorado Department of Corrections chief Tom Clements in March, was accidentally released from prison four years early. How in the world does an inmate—especially one as violent as Ebel—get mistakenly released from prison?

In this case, the Colorado judicial system got confused about concurrent and consecutive sentencing. (And can you blame them, really, when both words start with con?) In 2008, Ebel pleaded guilty to assault on a corrections officer, a crime committed while he was already incarcerated on a different conviction. He was sentenced to four additional years behind bars, to be tacked on to the end of his current sentence. However, during the sentencing hearing, things went awry:

A sentencing hearing was held on June 11, 2008. The judge announced a sentence of four years in the Department of Corrections but did not state it was consecutive because it was already required by the terms of the plea agreement. Because the judge did not expressly state that the sentence was consecutive, the court judicial assistant did not include that term in the mittimus, the sentence order that went to the Department of Corrections.

Thus, because the paperwork didn’t specify that the sentences were to run consecutively, prison officials just assumed that they were to run concurrently.

Inmates get mistakenly released from prison all the time. On March 22, a California prisoner named Jesse Parsons made a farfetched bid for freedom when he showed up at the Santa Cruz County Jail’s outtake area and pretended to be a different fellow who actually was supposed to be released that day. Amazingly, the guards failed to notice the ruse, and they set Parsons free; a presumably embarrassed police spokesman noted that the jailers “failed to follow the proper procedures.” Two weeks ago, Dwaine Johnson Jr. managed to briefly escape some impending attempted murder charges when he was mistakenly released from a South Carolina prison, probably by convincing staffers that he was actually Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and he would put them all in his next movie if they let him go free. Johnson was recaptured a week later.

In February, Gregory Jeffreys was mistakenly released from a Spokane County, Wash., jail while facing 73 counts of fraud and money laundering—and, in a remarkable display of self-discipline, he turned himself in once he was informed of the jailers’ error. In late January, a convicted murderer named Steven Robbins was mistakenly released from custody in Chicago after some paperwork went missing following a court appearance; the local sheriff blamed “an antiquated computer system” for facilitating the mistake. Robbins was captured a week later.

There are a lot more incidents like these, but you get the picture. Just like with any enterprise, some prisons are more competently managed than others. Sometimes they don’t communicate particularly well with the courts, and relevant sentencing information is misplaced or misinterpreted; sometimes a prison’s clerical staff is overworked or poorly trained, and critical details go overlooked; sometimes they are working with outdated equipment that can foster mistakes. The good news, if you can call it that, is that these mistakes are usually noticed and the prisoners usually recaptured before any real harm can be done.

But that’s not what happened in Colorado.