System Failure

December 18, 2011

This happened to me, but in a much lesser way.

The fatal shooting of a New York City police officer allegedly during a botched robbery by a quartet of career criminals last week might have been avoided had a local judge acted on a warrant issued in another state for the alleged gunman.

It’s a systems failure that experts say has become all-too-common in courtrooms across the country.

Lamont Pride, 27, who was arrested Monday and charged with the murder of NYPD officer Peter Figoski, was freed from custody in November by Brooklyn Criminal Judge Evelyn Laporte — even though a prosecutor mentioned that he had an outstanding warrant for a shooting in North Carolina. The prosecutor then requested that bail be posted at $2,000, and soon after that, Pride was back on the streets.

Barely more than a month later, Pride was back in jail, this time charged with murdering a cop.

“There’s something terribly wrong when a system functions like this for years and years,” said NYPD Sgt. Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association.

“There’s no doubt that this would have never happened had things been done properly in court,” Mullins said, referring to the death of Figoski.

The conditions that put Pride back on the street happen often, due to negligence or a justice system tangled in red tape.

A 2002 report released by New Orleans-based Center for Society, Law, and Justice, titled “Consequences of Inadequately Integrated Justice Information Systems,” cited numerous similar examples.

In April 1998, Jose Serrano was arrested by narcotics officers in Brooklyn for heroin possession. He gave the officers a fake name, Joseph Figueroa. He was processed and released with a desk appearance ticket eight hours before results from a fingerprint check came back from the state capital, Albany.

When the prints were returned, cops learned that Serrano had given them a bogus name and was wanted for a parole violation.

Nearly one month later, cops went to Serrano’s home to arrest him after he missed a court date, and they were ambushed by the criminal, who shot and murdered Officer Anthony Mosomillo.

Serrano was also killed during the shootout, and his girlfriend, Betsy Ramos, had pulled a gun from one of the officers, a decision that led to her trial for murder. A jury found her not guilty on the murder charge. She was convicted on lesser charges of second-degree manslaughter, assault and obstruction of justice.

A man named Leonard Saldana was arrested in Austin, Texas, in March 1998 for violating a court order to stay away from his common-law wife, Sylvia Hernandez. The judge set bail at $4,000. What he did not know was that Saldana had been jailed 19 times in 10 years for various incidents that included violation of protective orders and domestic assault.

The court was not aware of Saldana’s priors because, at the time, the police department refused to grant municipal courts on-line access to criminal histories. The only way they could obtain the histories was orally in response to individual requests or in written copies if investigators from the court retrieved them from the police department.

After he was released on bail, Saldana stabbed his wife to death. He was then brought to trial where prosecutors sought the death penalty. Saldana was found guilty but sentenced to life in prison.

In February 2000, in New Orleans on the day before Valentine’s Day, Leo Mitchell was released on $26,000 bail after allegedly assaulting his ex-girlfriend, Elena Smith. At the time, he was on parole for a 1991 shooting. While out on bail, Mitchell returned to Smith’s house, where he murdered one man and wounded Smith’s brother before kidnapping Smith. Mitchell was charged with third-degree murder.

It was later discovered that an oversight in the Louisiana probation and parole office prevented a detainer — which would have kept Mitchell in custody — from being filed.

Despite these issues, no policies seem to be in place to prevent a repeat.

“It varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but unless there is a statewide adoption of policies, this could happen again,” said Steve Kardian, a former chief investigator for the New York City Department of Investigation.

“So many things have to be taken into consideration, and that could be difficult even on a state or national level.”

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