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A Times Editorial

Prosecutor's mistakes call for immediate changes

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe said the right things about the case involving a Clearwater man charged with domestic violence who made bail and then allegedly killed the mother of his son. McCabe said he was "dumbfounded,'' publicly explained the mistakes made at a court hearing and outlined plans to coach his staff. He met Friday with prosecutors who handle these types of hearings, and every part of the criminal justice system should re-evaluate its actions in this tragic case.

Craig Alan Wall Sr. already was a suspect in the death of his baby boy, who died earlier this month after suffering fractured ribs and brain trauma. The child's mother, Laura Taft, later obtained a domestic violence injunction against Wall that banned him from contacting her. He saw her Sunday and was arrested and initially held without bail. But he was out of jail by Monday evening because of a series of errors at a court hearing.

It was never mentioned by the assistant state attorney that Wall was a suspect in the death of his 5-week-old son, even though that detail was in the arrest affidavit. It was never mentioned that Wall had spent 14 years in prison on charges related to armed robbery, even though that detail also was in the prosecutor's records. Imagine how those facts could have changed the outcome of a first appearance hearing where bail was set at $1,000. At the very least, the bond would have been higher.

McCabe said it also was a mistake for the assistant state attorney to offer to settle the case so quickly without further study. While plea arrangements are acceptable in a first appearance hearing in some minor cases, he said, they are not in cases involving a potential victim of domestic violence. As McCabe noted, "one of the hardest things to train is common sense.''

There is often debate about the effectiveness of domestic violence injunctions at protecting victims from further harm. Those who have been threatened should seek every protection from the courts. Sometimes, though, a court order is no deterrent for someone determined to injure another person. In this case, though, it should have provided more protection. Taft sought and obtained a court order, Wall violated it and he was arrested. Only serious errors in judgment allowed him to get out of jail so easily.

Every day, an assembly line of first appearance hearings is held, and those hearings determine whether defendants should continue to be held in jail. Sometimes, bail is modified. The pace is often fast, decisions are quickly made and the process keeps churning. In this case, the decisions were made too quickly and a series errors were made because all of the facts were not made available. Wall will have to answer to the charges that he killed the mother of his child. To his credit, McCabe already is answering for the mistakes made by his office and taking steps to correct them.

Prosecutor's mistakes call for immediate changes 02/19/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 19, 2010 8:05pm]
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