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Judge's mistake shines light on error-prone system

Aug. 09, 2013 @ 11:36 PM

A Kanawha County circuit judge was the target of considerable criticism in March when she mistakenly released an inmate being held in the South Central Regional Jail on kidnapping charges.

As it turns out, however, the judge was not so much to blame as was a record-keeping system that leads to confusion and mistakes, according to findings of an investigation ordered by the West Virginia Supreme Court.

The judge was attempting to dismiss a related but separate motion for a psychiatric evaluation when she inadvertently ordered the release of the kidnapping suspect, who was later re-arrested. The mistake occurred when the clerk's office changed case numbers in line with local practice "that is not supported or authorized by statute, court rule or even a provision of the Circuit Court Clerk's Manual," investigators found.

The investigators' review uncovered a larger pattern of widespread problems in a filing system that lawyers call an "error magnet" and is evident in other counties in the state, Chief Justice Brent Benjamin said in an eight-page order this week.

It now appears the judge's error will turn into a blessing. In response to the investigation's findings, the Supreme Court plans to create a centralized electronic filing system to serve all of the state's 55 counties, replacing a setup where four vendors serve the counties with different systems. It will be launched as a pilot program in 14 counties, including Cabell and Lincoln, next year. The Supreme Court will pay for the upgrade and its operation.

We trust this new system will no longer put judges at the mercy of a system that is "needlessly complicated" and "counter-intuitive," as the current system is described.

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