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Judge directs every Oklahoma County jail inmate be checked after one was lost for almost eight months

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Lemons
Lemons

For almost eight months, everyone agrees, Oklahoma County jail inmate Charles E. Lemons was lost in the criminal justice system.

Still in dispute is why.

What everyone involved also agrees on, though, is that it shouldn't happen.

"I was thinking, 'They forgot me,'" Lemons, 49, said Thursday one day after being released. "I really didn't know what to do."

On Friday, Public Defender Bob Ravitz and a team of his assistants will conduct the first ever court-sanctioned check of every inmate in the Oklahoma County Detention Center to determine whether anyone else has been lost.

With the assistance of the sheriff's office, they will be asking each inmate if he or she has been seen by a judge, have an upcoming court date and have an attorney.

"We don't know," Ravitz said when asked why Lemons wasn't arraigned within the first three days of being locked up last July. "What you have to do is prevent it from every happening again."

Oklahoma County Presiding Judge Tom Prince on Tuesday directed the jail inmate check be done after Ravitz alerted him to the mistake.

Sheriff P.D. Taylor said the inmate check will take hours to complete. The jail Thursday held 1,650 inmates.

"If it accomplishes anything, say we found another person or two other people who have fallen through the cracks, we're open to doing this on a routine basis, once every couple months," the sheriff said. "It's that important to us that this doesn't happen again.

"There are so many inmates and so many charges filed in Oklahoma County and there is so much paperwork that goes from the courthouse, back and forth, to us. ... You can almost see how something like this will happen."

Court Clerk Rick Warren said the tracking of inmates needs to be automated so it doesn't happen again.

"I've been saying that the computer systems have to start talking to one another," he said. "We just have to change that. ... Until the process is automated, we run the risk of repeating this problem again and again. We have to do better."

Lemons was put on probation in January 2018 for failing to register as a sex offender. Because he was homeless, he was required to check in with Oklahoma City police once a week but didn't, prosecutors alleged.

He was jailed July 21, a Saturday, after being accused of probation violations. He should have been arraigned by video the following Monday or Tuesday but wasn't.

He said he had thought he was going to go to court in August for a probation revocation hearing but didn't.

"I just sat there," he said of his months in a cell with two other inmates. "I told several of the officers — what they call rovers — that 'I don't have a court date. When am I going to court?' And they said, 'That's not my job.'"

He specifically recalled telling a sheriff's sergeant a couple of months ago that he hadn't gone to court yet. "He ... shook his head," Lemons said. "That's all he did."

He acknowledged his mom knew he was in jail and that she could have gotten him released by paying a bondman $200. He didn't want her to do that. "That would put her in a bind," he said.

Lemons was finally arraigned — by video — March 1 after he spoke to a jail psychiatrist. Lemons first talked to the psychiatrist about having trouble sleeping.

On a follow-up visit, he told the psychiatrist he hadn't had a court date yet. The psychiatrist notified court officials.

"It's unfortunate. It shouldn't happen," said Kevin McCray, the special judge in charge of arraignments.

Lemons was released Wednesday after the public defender intervened in his case and made a deal with prosecutors. The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM) is helping Lemons find a place to stay and a job.

"We'll take it a step at a time," said Kris Steele, TEEM executive director. "It is very troubling ... that somebody could be overlooked and lost in the system."

Oklahoma County Commissioner Kevin Calvey sought last month to do his own check of inmates after hearing accounts of lost inmates. He showed up at the jail on a Saturday morning with District Judge Cindy Truong and 16 others, including Valley Brook police officers. The sheriff stopped the check because of security concerns. The sheriff complained afterward he wasn't given proper notice of Calvey's intentions.

"This would have been uncovered a month ago if we had been allowed to do it," Calvey said Thursday.

"There are ongoing problems with the management of the jail," the new commissioner also said. "I think we need, obviously, to have more oversight of the sheriff's office."

Nolan Clay

Nolan Clay was born in Oklahoma and has worked as a reporter for The Oklahoman since 1985. He covered the Oklahoma City bombing trials and witnessed bomber Tim McVeigh's execution. His investigative reports have brought down public officials,... Read more ›

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