How do two convicted murderers walk out of prison?
Too easily, it appears.
Charles Walker and Joseph Jenkins were free for some time, though this fact didn't become public knowledge until this week. As Florida authorities looked for the two men, they also insisted they aren't to blame -- even if others dropped the ball or were fooled in a big, big way.
"We've had a system failure that resulted in two individuals being erroneously released," Orange County, Florida, Sheriff Jerry Demings said. "...This is very frustrating for all of us who work in the system."
The sheriff said Friday evening the two were thought to be in the Orlando area. In fact, they ended up getting caught Saturday evening about 360 miles to the northwest at a Panama City motel, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced.
The two fugitives, both 34, hadn't needed a Hollywood-style jailbreak or even a "Get Out Of Jail Free" card to spring themselves out of the Franklin Correctional Institution. Instead they used forged documents indicating their life sentences had been modified and they could leave.
The legal-looking documents contained bogus reproductions of several key players' signatures, including those of the Orlando-area state attorney or the assistant state attorney and Judge Belvin Perry. They bore the seal of the Orange County clerk of court's office.
The documents were processed by the state Department of Corrections and the men were released. Processing the paper work is more akin to data entry than high-level analysis or approval, noted veteran Florida criminal defense attorney Mark O'Mara.
"However it was done, it was well-planned and they know the system well enough to place it," said O'Mara, a CNN legal analyst known for representing George Zimmerman.
As well as those behind the convicts' release might have executed their scheme, some think others in authority could have done better, but the agencies involved are defending their actions.
The orders to release Walker and Jenkins looked legitimate, said Ninth Circuit State Attorney Jeffrey L. Ashton.
The county clerk of court's office didn't do anything wrong, spokeswoman Leesa Bainbridge said. It acts "like a post office," Bainbridge said, "Our role is to take orders and send them to the appropriate agency."
That last agency, the state Department of Corrections, is throwing up its hands as well.
The court passed along documentation indicating the two murderers' sentences had been changed, and "it's not our job to question what the court does," said Department of Corrections spokeswoman Misty Cash.
"The fault does not lie on us. No one is getting in trouble here for what happened," she said.
Whoever is to blame, the price is being paid. Law enforcement officials worked overtime to try to find Walker and Jenkins, with a reward of $10,000 apiece being offered for information leading to their capture. The relatives of the men's victims were angry, scared and wanted an explanation.
And while Demings said Friday he didn't know of any similar premature releases of inmates, O'Mara said that given how smoothly this plan worked, how readily available court documents are in Florida, and how seemingly simple it was to pull off, it would be naive to think this hasn't happened before, freeing other convicts well before their time was served.
"I doubt it happens very much, because this is very unusual," said O'Mara. "But this could have gone for 10 years or more."
Sentenced to life without parole, then set free
In September 1998, Joseph I. Jenkins killed Roscoe Pugh Jr. during a home-invasion robbery attempt.
Six months later, Cedric Slater was gunned down on an Orlando street corner -- shot dead, a jury determined, by Charles B. Walker.
Both killers were convicted and sentenced to life behind bars without the possibility of parole within two years of their crime. While it's not known if they knew each other, they were at the same prison in North Carrabelle, in Florida's Panhandle.
Jenkins left there on September 27, and Walker left on October 8, according to authorities. They had motions indicating the sentences had been reduced, as well as court orders granting the request. Investigators later discovered these documents were forged.
Asked how someone might replicate the documents, O'Mara noted that court filings in Florida cases are available online, so they might be mimicked by "anybody with a little common sense," access to a word processing tool and the gall to replicate signatures seen on those records.
There might have been a screw-up, but Cash said there is no "cover-up" at the Department of Corrections. That agency's chief, Michael Crews, has promised a "vigorous and thorough review" to make sure others weren't also wrongly freed.