September 5, 2013 10:54:00 AM
Sarah Fowler - firstname.lastname@example.org
An inmate will remain behind bars after a Mississippi Department of Corrections mistake almost released him to house arrest.
In August, the MDOC parole board granted John Murphy early release and sentenced him to house arrest, even though he was not eligible for action because he had been convicted as a habitual offender.
On Monday, the parole board reversed course, rescinding Murphy's early release. Murphy has served six months of his four-year sentence. With the parole board's decision, he will serve out the full four years of his sentence and will not be released until May 2016.
The parole board's reversal comes two weeks after The Dispatch reported that Murphy was a habitual offender and should not have been eligible for house arrest. Murphy has been arrested a dozen times over the last decade and charged with nearly 30 crimes, ranging from stalking to manufacturing methamphetamine. His most recent arrest was in May 2012.
In February, Murphy, 59, pleaded guilty to possession of methamphetamine and possession of hydrocodone with intent to distribute. He pleaded guilty as a habitual offender to the possession of methamphetamine charge and was sentenced to serve four years with MDOC. He pleaded guilty as a non-habitual offender for the possession of hydrocodone with intent to distribute and was sentenced to 20 years with MDOC, with 16 suspended. He also received five years post-release supervision. The sentences were to run concurrent.
MDOC said the "confusion" surrounding Murphy's parole hearing and subsequent release was due to a clerical error. MDOC initially contacted The Dispatch and demanded a retraction before looking into the matter more closely. MDOC communications officer Tara Booth produced a court record from Lowndes County Circuit Court which amended one of Murphy's charges from habitual to non-habitual. However, he was still listed as a habitual offender on a separate cause number (charge). Booth placed the blame for the error on the circuit court.
"We got clarification through the court administrator," Booth said Wednesday. "They confirmed (Murphy) was sentenced as a habitual (offender) on one of the cause numbers, just not all of the causes."
"We think that what happened was they meant to not to remove the language, but to insert the language," Booth said. "Obviously, they meant to add the language."
Assistant district attorney Lindsay Clemons adamantly denies any error by the circuit court, however.
"If there was a clerical error, it was with MDOC not reading the two separate sentencing orders in two separate cause numbers carefully," Clemons said. "One sentencing order and cause number clearly shows John Murphy was sentenced as a habitual offender. In determining his release date, MDOC must have looked at the one cause number that did not sentence him as a habitual offender and seemingly ignored the court's sentence on the possession of methamphetamine charge."
Court records show that Murphy was originally indicted on three separate charges, or cause numbers. When he was indicted, Clemons made a motion to amend Murphy's status to habitual on all three cause numbers. When a plea agreement was reached months later, the causes were amended to make Murphy a habitual offender on the possession of methamphetamine charge and a non-habitual on the hydrocodone charge. The third charge was retired to the files.
"When Mr. Murphy was first indicted in three separate cause numbers, I filed motions to amend each cause to reflect his status as a habitual offender," Clemons said. "Later, his attorney and I were able to reach a plea agreement that sentenced him to some habitual time and some non-habitual time. Therefore, it was necessary to remove the habitual language from the charge that he was going to be serving as a non-habitual offender."
While the error has since been corrected and Murphy remains in prison, Clemons said she is outraged that Murphy could have potentially gotten off with such a light sentence.
"Notwithstanding the screw-up on this sentence, it is outrageous to me that someone can be sentenced to serve four years non-habitual time and be released after six months," she said.
When asked if "clerical errors" were common with MDOC and the parole board, Booth had no comment.
Sarah Fowler covers crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.