Mistakenly freed killer captured while watching TV

Mistakenly freed killer captured while watching TV

February 2nd, 2013 by Associated Press in Local - Breaking News

This photo provided Saturday by the Cook County Sheriff's Office shows convicted murder Steven Robbins back in custody two days after a stunning series of errors allowed Robbins to walk out of a Chicago jail.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

CHICAGO - Two days after a stunning series of errors allowed a convicted murderer to walk out of a Chicago jail where he did not need to be in the first place, police recaptured the man at a northern Illinois home where he was found watching TV.

Steven L. Robbins, 44, put up no resistance Friday night as police burst through the door of a townhome in Kankakee, about 60 miles south of Chicago, said Cook County Sheriff's Office spokesman Frank Bilecki.

"He was in the living room or kitchen area watching TV, taken by total surprise," Bilecki said, adding that it appears the homeowner might know an acquaintance of Robbins. Before the arrest, a surveillance team spotted Robbins wearing a curly wig while carrying groceries from a vehicle into the home, the sheriff's office said.

By Saturday afternoon, Robbins was back in the Indiana State Prison, where he was serving a 60-year sentence for murder.

The prisoner's mistaken release focused attention on an antiquated corner of the criminal justice system that still relies extensively on paper documents instead of computers in moving detainees and keeping tabs on their court status.

The episode prompted promises of change, but also some finger-pointing.

"We're not ducking the fact we dropped the ball. We made mistakes," Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said Friday. "The public deserves much more. We're going to find out what went wrong here."

Robbins' transfer to Illinois was the result of a mistake to begin with, officials said. And Dart and Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, both prominent local Democrats, exchanged tense words over who was ultimately responsible for that error.

Robbins was brought before a Cook County Circuit Court judge over drug possession and armed violence charges in a case that it turns out had been dismissed in 2007. But because law enforcement authorities were still seeing an active arrest warrant, Dart's office requested a transfer and Alvarez's office approved it, according to the sheriff's office.

Alvarez told reporters that her office had told Dart's office that Robbins' drug and armed violence case was closed. But the sheriff showed The Associated Press a copy of the extradition request from September signed by one of Alvarez's prosecutors.

In a second lapse that Dart took responsibility for, he acknowledged that paperwork was lost that would have made it clear to Illinois officials that Robbins was to be returned to Indiana. As a result, he was allowed to walk out of the Cook County Jail's main gate on Wednesday evening.

Dart said he has sought for years to modernize "a very archaic system" that often involves slips of paper from court clerks in illegible handwriting. But he said no money has been set aside for what he described as a "very expensive proposition."

He did pledge to review procedures in his office, including at the warrant unit. In particular, Dart said he wanted to learn why that unit decided to act on Robbins' drugs and armed violence warrant when he was already serving a long murder sentence.

Robbins, a Gary, Ind., native, was serving a sentence for murder and weapons convictions out of Marion County in Indiana.

Witnesses to the 2002 killing told police Robbins was arguing with his wife outside a birthday party in Indianapolis when a man intervened, telling Robbins he should not hit a woman, according to court documents.

Witnesses said Robbins then retrieved a gun from a car and shot the man in the chest. He started serving his sentence in October 2004.

At a brief appearance Saturday in Chicago bond court, a public defender told the judge Robbins had no intention to flee.

Assistant Public Defender Todd Chatman noted Robbins was released by the state and said he was not at fault. The judge dropped an escape charge.

Robbins was then driven about 50 miles east to the Indiana State Prison.

"We are grateful that law enforcement caught him before he committed another crime," Indiana Department of Corrections spokesman Doug Garrison said.

It is not the first time a prisoner has been mistakenly freed from the Cook County Jail. In 2009, Jonathan Cooper, who was serving a 30-year manslaughter sentence in Mississippi, was brought to Chicago to face charges that he failed to register as a sex offender.

Prosecutors dropped the charges because, as an inmate, he could not comply with the Sex Offender Registration Act. A clerk reportedly failed to include the Mississippi sentence information in Cooper's file, and jail staff released him.

Cooper turned himself in several days later.