In 2nd such case, clerical foul-up freed an imprisoned killer

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Emilio Sanchez pleaded guilty to homicide by vehicle while DUI after driving the truck with the white shell into a parked SUV along I-95, killing the driver who was trying to change a flat tire. (Alex Lloyd Gross / File)

BECAUSE OF an error in the office of the Clerk of Quarter Sessions, a drunken driver who struck and killed a man on Interstate 95 in Philadelphia in 2007 served just a fraction of his prison sentence before he was released and deported to Mexico, the Daily News has learned.

The situation marks the second error by the embattled office that the People Paper has exposed in the last month in which a defendant who committed homicide by vehicle while DUI was released from prison prematurely.

In the 2007 case, Emilio Sanchez, 33, was drunk behind the wheel of a white truck southbound on I-95 near Bridge Street about 6:30 a.m. Sept. 23, when he swerved onto the right shoulder.

Parked on the shoulder was a Chevrolet TrailBlazer with its flashers on. Mark Doogan, 41, was underneath, trying to get a spare tire to fix a flat, when Sanchez rammed his truck into the SUV.

"I see that my boss is laying on the ground and he is bleeding and not moving," said a witness, according to a police report. This woman and another, who worked with Doogan, had come to his aid that Sunday morning with a can of Fix-A-Flat tire sealant.

That didn't work, so Doogan tried to get his spare.

A police officer who arrived at the crash scene arrested Sanchez, smelling alcohol on his breath. Sanchez swayed and wobbled, spoke only Spanish, and his speech was slurred.

"When the defendant saw the person laying on the ground under the truck, he was pointing his finger, smiling and laughing," the police report said.

 

Not extraditable

Sanchez pleaded guilty March 27, 2008, to homicide by vehicle while DUI and was sentenced according to a negotiated plea deal to the mandatory-minimum of three to six years in prison.

The clerk in the courtroom, however, recorded his sentence as three to six months.

Sanchez had been in county custody since his arrest, and by the time of his guilty plea and sentencing, six months had passed. While he was in county prison, authorities realized that he was in the U.S. illegally, and immigration authorities placed a detainer on him.

On April 3, 2008, the Philadelphia Prison System released him to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.

Mark Medvesky, the ICE spokesman in Philadelphia, confirmed that Sanchez was taken into ICE custody and removed from the United States later that month. Citing the agency's privacy policy, he did not say where Sanchez was sent.

Then-District Attorney Lynne Abraham, however, informed the victim's mother in October 2008 that Sanchez had been taken to Brownsville, Texas, on April 25, 2008, and turned over to Mexican Federal Police at the Brownsville border crossing.

In her letter, Abraham sought to reassure Doogan's mother that "Philadelphia FBI will work with the FBI in Mexico to locate the defendant. Once they locate him, they will take him into custody, they will notify our office and we will begin the extradition request."

She added: "We will continue to monitor the case and work with the federal authorities until he is apprehended and returned to Philadelphia to serve his sentence."

But Sanchez did not return. Tasha Jamerson, spokeswoman for new D.A. Seth Williams, said prosecutors had contacted the U.S. Department of Justice to see whether Sanchez could be extradited. The answer, received in May 2009, was that vehicular homicide is not an extraditable crime because it is not a willful or intentional crime.

In other words: Sanchez did not intend to kill someone when he drove his vehicle that day, so he cannot be brought back here by authorities.

After the D.A.'s office learned that Sanchez was not in state prison as he was supposed to have been, a prosecutor asked Common Pleas Judge Benjamin Lerner to issue a bench warrant, which he did in June 2008.

The bench warrant is in the National Crime Information Center database, Jamerson said, so if Sanchez were to return to the U.S. and be detected for committing another crime, authorities would be alerted and he would appear before Lerner.

Doogan's family declined comment for this article.

 

Another error

The Daily News reported March 4 that an error by the Clerk of Quarter Sessions office led to the release from state prison a year early of a Mayfair man who was driving drunk when he struck and killed a 12-year-old boy in 2004, then walked away from the scene.

On Thanksgiving 2004, William Halloran fatally struck the boy, Peter Roberto Jr., at Harbison Avenue and Comly Street in Wissinoming. He then fled on foot.

A clerk mistakenly made one of Halloran's charges concurrent rather than consecutive. After the Daily News alerted Roberto's family, the state Board of Probation and Parole took Halloran, 34, back into custody.

In Sanchez's case, the Clerk of Quarter Sessions clerk incorrectly wrote his sentence as three to six months rather than three to six years on court-commitment paperwork, which a judge does not see, but which goes to the prison.

The clerk did the same thing on the two-page sentencing order, which the judge in this case, Lerner, had signed off on. But this order does not get sent to the prison.

Lerner, in a recent interview, said he takes responsibility for signing the sentencing order.

He said he had received the second page of the sentencing order, which had the line for his signature, but not the first page, which had the terms of the sentence.

"In this case, there were mistakes committed by a variety of people," Lerner said, "one of whom was me.

"I'm extremely sorry about what happened, and I, at least as far as my own practices are concerned, have learned never to sign a signature page of a sentencing order without receiving the whole order. I have to accept my share of the responsibility for this."

Lerner said the county prison record-room staff, because of its experience, should have realized that someone convicted of homicide by vehicle while DUI would not receive a sentence of months rather than years.

"At least some supervisor should have been aware that three to six months, as opposed to three to six years, is not a legal sentence for a homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence, and they should have asked about it before releasing Mr. Sanchez," Lerner said.

Philadelphia Prison System spokesman Bob Eskind wrote in an e-mail response to Lerner's comment: "I don't think there are many judges who would welcome the prison system staff to review and research and question" the commitment paperwork that is sent to its office.

"As we organize, record and act on the paperwork that comes back from the courts every evening, we don't try to reconstruct what may have gone on in a courtroom or in a judge's mind . . . ," Eskind wrote.

The mistaken paperwork that was sent to the prison did not clearly spell out the clerk's name, but the separate sentencing order identified her as "TTaylor."

According to city payroll records, the only person with the first initial of "T" and the last name of "Taylor" who works in the clerk's office is Tanisha Taylor. Reached on Friday, Taylor said she didn't recall the case and wouldn't confirm if she had worked in Lerner's courtroom in March 2008. She referred a reporter's call to the executive office of the Clerk of Quarter Sessions.

Marc Gaillard, second deputy in the office, declined to comment.

 

Any solution?

The Clerk of Quarter Sessions office is in transition. Its elected head, Vivian Miller, announced earlier this month that she will resign March 31. Miller, 74, had faced mounting criticism over her supervision of the office, which keeps records of the city's criminal cases.

Common Pleas President Judge Pamela Pryor Dembe and Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille have said that the duties of the Clerk of Quarter Sessions office will be supervised by Prothonotary Joseph Evers and that the clerk's office's employees will become First Judicial District employees.

Dembe, when asked recently if anything could prevent future clerical errors, said that clerks need to be better trained but that it's not feasible to review each document.

Judge Lerner said he didn't think the case signaled a need "where the whole system needs to be changed."

He added: "The cure or remedy for this type of error is for everyone involved to be more careful. I learned that lesson in this case. I am more careful."

Lerner said the system could be improved if the clerk filled out a single online document, which the judge would sign electronically, and which then would be sent by computer to the prison.

Dembe agreed that "to the extent we can do things electronically and compress things . . . I think that's a good idea."

 

Gone, and unaware

The Philadelphia Police Department declined to release a photo of Sanchez, citing its policy of not releasing mug shots beyond 30 days of an arrest.

Sanchez lived on Sheridan Street near Oregon Avenue, in South Philadelphia, with a few male roommates, neighbors said.

On the day of the accident, he was driving a white truck owned by GTM Landscaping. A call to the business owner, George T. Maloney, was referred to attorney Katherine Douglas. Douglas declined to comment.

Sanchez's neighbors, Robert Pearce, 48, Robin Zeoli, 48, and Leo Mari, 46, said they had never spoken to him, but had sometimes seen him coming home in the evening drunk.

They said they realized who he was after he was arrested, and then they no longer saw him.

William Bowe, Sanchez's court-appointed attorney, said he found out that Sanchez was not in state prison when the D.A.'s office asked Lerner to issue a bench warrant for him.

He said he has no idea where Sanchez lived in Mexico and had no contact with Sanchez's family.

"I doubt he understood he was wrongly released," Bowe said.

Bowe said Sanchez "was very remorseful" for driving drunk and killing another man.