DENVER (AP) — Colorado court officials have vowed to review procedures to ensure that a clerical mistake that allowed the early release of a prisoner — who then went on to allegedly shoot the state's corrections director last month — doesn't happen again.
Judicial officials acknowledged Monday that Evan Spencer Ebel's previous felony conviction was inaccurately recorded and his release in January was an error.
In 2008, Ebel pleaded guilty in rural Fremont County to assaulting a prison officer. In the plea deal, Ebel was to be sentenced to up to four additional years in prison, to be served after he completed the eight-year sentence that put him behind bars in 2005, according to a statement from Colorado's 11th Judicial District.
However, the judge didn't say the sentence was meant to be "consecutive," or in addition to, Ebel's current one. So the court clerk recorded it as one to be served "concurrently," or at the same time. That's the information that went to the state prisons, the statement said.
So on Jan. 28, prisons officials saw that Ebel had finished his court-ordered sentence and released him. They said they had no way of knowing the plea deal was intended to keep Ebel behind bars for years longer.
Two months later, Ebel was dead after a shootout with authorities in Texas. The gun he used in the March 21 gunbattle was the same one used to shoot and kill prisons chief Tom Clements two days earlier.
Police believe Ebel also was involved in the death of Nathan Leon, who was killed March 17 after heading out to deliver a pizza.
"The Colorado Department of Corrections values its long-standing partnership with the 11th Judicial District and the district attorney's office to maintain order at the prisons in Canon City," Gov. John Hickenlooper's spokeswoman Megan Castle said in a statement.
"We commend both the 11th Judicial District and the DOC for reviewing their own internal processes and procedures."
Charles Barton, chief judge of the 11th Judicial District, and court administrator Walter Blair, said in a statement that the court regrets the oversight "and extends condolences to the families of Mr. Nathan Leon and Mr. Tom Clements."
Leon's widow said the apology wasn't going to cut it.
"How do I tell my 4-year-olds, 'Daddy was murdered because of a clerical error,'" Katherine Leon told KUSA-TV in Denver.
Leon's father-in-law told AP he had no immediate comment.
The attack that led to the plea deal took place in 2006. According to prison and court records, Ebel slipped out of his handcuffs while being transferred from a cell and punched a prison officer in the face. He bloodied the officer's nose and finger, and threatened to kill the officer's family.
"If Mr. Ebel was prosecuted for an assault on an officer, it had to be pretty severe, because in the course of day-to-day work, correctional officers are regularly assaulted or threatened," said Pueblo County Commissioner Buffie McFadyen, who is executive director of the correctional officer group Corrections U.S.A.
"It sounds like a horrific oversight," she said of the mistake that led to Ebel's release this year. "It's a tragic clerical error."
How often such errors happen is unknown. Examining court documents for typographical and such errors would be a huge undertaking. The only thing that comes close is case management efforts that ask questions such as, "can we find the file," said Bill Raftery, an analyst at the Williamsburg, Va.-based National Center for State Courts.
Ebel spent much of his time behind bars in solitary confinement and had a long record of disciplinary violations. Records show he joined a white supremacist prison gang.
Ebel's early release was just the latest twist in a case full of painful ironies. His father is friends with Hickenlooper and had testified before the Colorado Legislature about the damage solitary confinement did to his son. Clements was worried about that very issue.
Hickenlooper raised the case with Clements when the governor hired him to come to Colorado in 2011. The Democratic governor said he never mentioned Ebel's name and the inmate received no special treatment.