Note: This article includes corrected information.
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Fifty-one inmates who were let out of prison early spent their dumb-luck freedom committing more crimes.
They racked up 235 charges, resulting in 33 felony and 102 misdemeanor convictions, a World-Herald follow-up investigation shows.
All those crimes were committed — and all the costs of arrest, incarceration and prosecution were incurred — when the prisoners still should have been sitting in cells.
And there’s a kicker: The Nebraska Supreme Court says such prisoners should serve the skipped portion of their sentences if they squandered their freedom by continuing their criminal ways.
Yet the newspaper’s analysis of police, court and prison records shows that the state has ignored the high court ruling — and the criminal records of released prisoners — as it has sought to clean up the mess created by prison officials who miscalculated sentences for decades.
The records detail a bevy of crimes committed while the prisoners should have been behind bars. Five assaults, including three of police officers. Sixteen thefts. Seventeen drug possessions. Seven drug dealings. Five sex-offender violations. Four weapons counts. A litany of misdemeanors: DUIs, child abuse, trespassing, driving with a suspended license.
And one drunken crime that exacted the ultimate price.
Hermino Alamilla closes his deep-set eyes.
He races through a choppy, almost Zapruderlike memory of Aug. 19, 2013 — the day he drove drunk with his best friend, Jerry “JR” Ramirez, riding shotgun.
Alamilla’s memories are stitched together by his quiet, melodic use of the phrase “next thing I know.”
He finishes his overnight shift at Bosselman’s truck stop. Picks up JR. Makes plans to visit the grave of a friend killed in a car wreck years earlier.
Drinks several beers. Eats lunch. Drinks some more.
Weaves through traffic on Highway 281, a four-lane drag on the edge of Grand Island.
Next thing I know ...
His Cadillac spins 180 degrees, dives into the median, rolls and winds up on its roof in the opposite lanes.
Alamilla comes to but can’t find Ramirez. He belly crawls from the wreckage, searching for his best friend.
Next thing I know ...
He’s clutching his best friend. Ramirez’s face is “so messed up” it’s unrecognizable.
Alamilla’s voice trails.
Next thing I know ...
His eyes swim.
“My best friend is dead ... because of me.”
Here’s what Alamilla didn’t know: He shouldn’t have been out that day.
The Grand Island man, convicted on a cocaine dealing charge, was released in June 2012 — 18 months before he should have been.
Had he stayed until his correct release date, one thing is certain: Ramirez would not have been in a car with him on Aug. 19, 2013.
And Ramirez’s 7-year-old son, Eli, might still have his dad.
Add Ramirez’s death to the consequences of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services’ massive miscalculations. A June 15 World-Herald investigation revealed that prison officials, in violation of Nebraska Supreme Court rulings in 2002 and 2013, had been releasing hundreds of prisoners years too soon.
In the aftermath, officials added more than 2,000 years to the sentences of 550 inmates who were residing in a Nebraska prison at the time of the newspaper’s revelation. They rearrested about 20 others whose corrected release dates should have kept them in prison well past June.
But what to do with the inmates — including Alamilla — whose actual release dates had already passed?
State officials had some guidance. In a 2008 ruling, the Nebraska Supreme Court laid out a critical condition for an inmate like Alamilla to receive sentence credit for time inadvertently spent on the streets: that he behave while out.
“It would offend notions of (justice) to credit a prisoner for time erroneously spent at liberty if the individual spent that time committing additional crimes,” the high court wrote.
Yet the state has not heeded that ruling, the newspaper’s analysis showed.
An examination of preliminary data provided by the state in July revealed:
» Many of the approximately 51 inmates returned to prison on sentences for new crimes. But they haven’t been required to serve any of the time they owed on the original sentences.
» The state has essentially vacated decades of prison sentences by not holding the inmates to the Supreme Court’s behavior standard. Net effect: a two-year sentence credit per prisoner.
» The new crimes affected more than three dozen victims. Even in so-called victimless crimes, there was a toll: a bed in a jail, the time of police officers and a prosecutor, the attention of a public defender and a judge.
“There’s a cost to all of this,” Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine said. “You start with the emotional toll. Everyone recognizes the impact of violent crime, but there’s a psychological impact whenever someone takes advantage of someone else. Then there’s just a tremendous amount of work involved, from all sides of the justice system.
“If you consider all of that, it’s just hard to imagine someone would get credit for a time period when they’re committing other crimes.”
Among those getting credit:
» Patricia Jacobsen, 28, was released in July 2013, one year early from her sentence for dealing methamphetamine. Within a month she was arrested on a new meth dealing charge — and was prosecuted in federal court. After The World-Herald report in June, the state put Jacobsen on furlough — a sort of pre-parole parole — though she still had time remaining on her original sentence. A federal judge then ordered her to begin a five-year sentence for her latest meth-dealing conviction.
» Lincoln resident Peirce Hubbard-Williams, originally convicted of theft and being a habitual criminal, was let out five years ahead of his July 2016 release date. While out, he was convicted of felony possession of oxycodone. After the state sought to round up Hubbard-Williams in June, State Sen. Ernie Chambers lobbied on his behalf. State Parole Board members released him in July — despite his new felony drug conviction. He is now a free man.
» Aaron Finney, a habitual criminal and thief, was released in April 2010 — five years early. Finney racked up 23 misdemeanors, including domestic assault and several counts of theft, during his state-sponsored prison break. Then, in 2013, he was convicted on a felony weapons charge. A judge sentenced him to three years in prison. Under that sentence, he’ll be released in 2015, just a few months after his original sentence should have ended.
Likewise, 48 other inmates have their own crimes they never should have been able to commit.
None quite like Alamilla.
After getting out in June 2012, Alamilla ran into problems you might expect from a man who refers to himself, despite his young age, as “institutionalized.”
Just 29 at the time of his release, Alamilla had spent most of his 20s serving three separate prison stints: for marijuana possession, being an accomplice to a first-degree assault and for cocaine possession.
Let out from his last prison term on June 29, 2012, he returned to Grand Island to live with his mother.
He met some predictable, perhaps understandable, obstacles. His daughter’s mother — who had alleged Alamilla had abused her — didn’t want him around their toddler daughter, Mariah.
Alamilla hired an attorney to help him through a child-custody proceeding — and, in time, reconnected with Mariah. At one point he spoiled the toddler by buying her some “ridiculously expensive” black-and-pink Air Jordans. “She loves those shoes,” he says.
Alamilla loved being able to buy them. Finally he had found some stability: landing a full-time job making $10 an hour as a maintenance man at Bosselman’s.
“I really liked the people I worked with,” he says. “I felt like I was going to be successful this time, like I was ready to put my past behind me.”
Meanwhile, he and Ramirez, who worked at a cold-storage facility, were fast friends. Had been since their teenage years. And they now lived a half-block away from each other — two childhood buds who hung out together.
“Every time anyone saw me without him, it was ‘Where’s (JR)?,’ ” Alamilla says. “That was my boy, you know? That was my bro right there.”
Faced with The World-Herald’s revelations last June, the state’s highest-ranking officials went into — their words — triage mode.
Prosecutors were fuming as they pushed for the return of all prisoners who were given a vacation, courtesy of Corrections.
Gov. Dave Heineman, saying he was angry, called for a swift response.
“Right now, we have criminals out on the streets that should be in the prison system and we want to get them back,” Heineman said on June 16. “We’re working with the Attorney General’s Office to determine what appropriate legal action is needed to do that.”
Heineman was adamant. The governor said the scope of the roundup would not be affected by concerns about chronic crowding at Nebraska’s prisons, which are 57 percent over capacity.
“These individuals committed a crime, they were found guilty and a judge issued a sentence,” Heineman said. “We are going to take all steps necessary to bring these individuals back into the Corrections system to serve out their complete term.”
Others were tapping the brakes.
In an interview June 16, Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning said he had a team of about five attorneys working overtime to chart the best course.
“I do this job to protect the citizens of Nebraska,” Bruning said. “We have to look at ‘What’s the crime? What’s the danger to society?’ ”
Bruning gave a handful of hypotheticals that he feared the state might face in trying to round up released prisoners. Most were extreme examples.
“There are practical considerations here,” he said. “What if the guy has two weeks left to serve and he’s now living in Key West, Florida? Do we send two state troopers down there for four days to try to track him down? I mean, some of these are going to be factually very difficult to justify.”
About the same time, Sen. Chambers was advocating for prisoners, urging the state to not needlessly disrupt families that had just been reunited.
He went to bat for two Lincoln men who had been rounded up. Both had begged not to go back to prison. Both had declared they had turned their lives around since their early release.
Each of their redemption stories, however, had a major hitch: They had been arrested and convicted on new felonies after their early release.
Nonetheless, Chambers bent the ear of Corrections Director Mike Kenney.
“They were out at no fault of their own — they did not escape,” Chambers told The World-Herald in June. “I am going to do everything I can to help resolve this and bring as few people back to prison as possible. The state made a mistake and prisoners should not be punished for it.”
Heineman didn’t share Chambers’ belief that all released prisoners should be left alone. He applauded Chambers, however, for helping to shape how Corrections should deal with individuals who might be eligible for parole, furlough or other release programs.
“We have really appreciated Sen. Chambers’ input as we look at part of the programs we are trying to put together for certain individuals who might qualify for (a) furlough program,” Heineman said through a spokeswoman. “Our discussions are all a part of the larger strategy we are working toward.”
On June 20 — five days after The World-Herald’s report — the governor had settled on a straightforward strategy.
In effect, his roundup would look like this:
» If the early-released prisoners still should have been in prison as of late June, they’re coming back. Many of them, anyway.
» If the early-released prisoners’ sentence would have expired as of late June, they’re done.
“The attorney general and I have had several conversations on the most judicious way to handle the early release(s),” Heineman said. “We believe we have a fair, quick and legal means for correcting the mistake.”
Alamilla makes a beeline for Ramirez’s house.
Just off his shift, he bangs on the door several times, hoping to hang with his best friend.
Finally, JR — known for his deep sleep — stirs, poking his head out the door.
“You down for a beer?” Alamilla asks.
The two have reason to drink. Their best friend, Johnny Garcia, then 17, died in a car wreck in December 2000. Another teen, suspected of drinking and driving, crashed and ran, leaving Garcia for dead.
Today — Aug. 19, 2013 — would have been Garcia’s 30th birthday.
“Yeah,” JR says. “Let’s go swig.”
They start with Four Loko, a high-alcohol concoction. Then they grab some lunch and wash it down with 32-ounce Bud Lights.
As they drink, they decide they should go visit Johnny’s grave.
But first they stop off to pick up another friend, Jose “Joe” Coronado. He carts out some beer left over from a kegger the night before. “It’s kinda stale,” Coronado says, “but it goes down smooth after a while.”
Alamilla decides he needs some cash. The three hop in his 1996 Cadillac, metallic blue with a white top. They zip to Bosselman’s, where Alamilla runs into one of his co-workers.
“I guess she saw how messed up I was,” Alamilla says. “She was, like, ‘What are you doing? You guys need to be careful.’ ”
As Heineman, Bruning and Kenney, the Corrections director, determined whom to round up, they had a pivotal Nebraska Supreme Court ruling as their guide.
In a no-nonsense decision, the high court ruled in 2008 that an Omaha man, David Anderson, could receive credit for the time he spent out of prison after officials mistakenly released him.
But the high court made one condition abundantly and redundantly clear.
Five times, Chief Justice Mike Heavican, who wrote the court’s unanimous opinion, railed against the notion that a prisoner should get credit if he “misbehaves while at liberty.”
The Supreme Court’s words:
» “Like a majority of courts, we agree that no equitable relief is required where a prisoner misbehaves while at liberty.”
» “Prisoners who commit crimes while at liberty do not deserve sentence credit.”
» “Sentence credit should not apply in cases where the prisoner ... committed crimes while at liberty.”
The governor himself cited the Anderson ruling several times. On July 2 and again on Aug. 15, Heineman said inmates who would have completed their sentence by late-June “qualified” for sentence credit under the Anderson ruling.
Heineman even quoted the ruling in a press release.
“According to Anderson ... any individual who was released early and who has not committed a crime since their release is entitled to be credited with the time served in the community toward their release date,” the governor’s statement began.
But he skipped over the good-behavior requirement as he continued: “Therefore, any inmate who has been back in his community longer than his recalculated release date will have completed his sentence requirement and will not be returned to incarceration.”
That had legal experts — a Creighton law professor, a University of Nebraska law professor and four longtime attorneys — scratching their heads.
Josephine Potuto, a UNL law professor, said the state’s strategy may have been reasonable, even efficient. But it’s not consistent with the law.
“It seems to me that that’s a kind of seat-of-the-pants, practical solution to it,” Potuto said. “It just doesn’t seem to jibe with what the court said.”
Longtime Omaha defense attorney Steve Lefler said he was taken aback that the governor and attorney general — “tough-on-crime guys” — weren’t using the Anderson ruling to pursue more prisoners.
“What’s the word? Chutzpah?” he said. “It’s surprising to me that they cited Anderson as the basis for leaving people out when even a cursory reading of Anderson indicates that a person’s (criminal) record is a hugely important factor.”
Lefler acknowledged the state would have run into challenges on what qualifies as a “crime.” Does one misdemeanor count? Two? Ten?
Then again, Lefler said, a felony is a no-brainer.
“My goodness, spend a little time here,” Lefler said. “Give it to a couple of law clerks to figure out what these inmates’ records were (after release). It’s not a monumental task to determine whether inmates behaved while they were out. It’s not a monumental task to determine whether your response actually is consistent with the Anderson opinion.”
A year later, this is what Alamilla remembers: Driving on Highway 281. JR in the front seat next to him. Relaxed. Too relaxed.
Coronado in the back seat — poking him.
“Joe wakes me up from the back seat,” Alamilla says. “I look back, then forward. I can’t concentrate. Next thing I know ...
“Everything happens so fast.”
The Cadillac peels away from a stoplight. Passes a car on the shoulder. Veers across lanes, plunges into the median, rolls and comes to a rest on its top in the opposite lanes.
Another motorist rushes to help and finds Ramirez outside the car, lifeless. Alamilla — who would later refuse a breath test — is despondent and defiant. And Coronado is screaming at Alamilla.
“You dumb (expletive), I told you to slow down, I told you to slow down!”
Wincing at the memory, Alamilla rolls up his sleeve to reveal a jagged burn on his left shoulder.
He isn’t sure how he got the burn. Maybe from the pavement. Maybe from his mangled car.
One thing is certain, he says: If you look closely, the scar roughly forms a J.
“I was laying on the pavement and I felt that burn,” Alamilla says. “And I was, like, ‘Man, is this what hell is going to be like?’ ”
Heineman and Bruning declined requests for interviews to explain the state’s strategy for the roundup.
Instead, the governor and attorney general — whose terms expire at the end of the year — issued a joint statement:
“Regarding the sentence calculation errors made by the Department of Corrections, the State of Nebraska continues to pursue a balanced and common sense legal strategy. For any criminal who was released early and then re-arrested, those convicted felons appeared in court, a judge conducted a pre-sentence investigation and then those individuals were sentenced for their additional crimes.”
What about the time the prisoners owed on the original sentences?
The governor and attorney general declined to comment, citing “matters currently in litigation.”
In reality, none of those inmates has sued.
Potuto, the UNL law professor, said that’s for good reason: The state hasn’t sought to hold them accountable for the time left on their original sentences.
The only lawsuits the state has faced are from a few of about 20 inmates who were rounded up — inmates whose corrected release dates were well after late June.
The state paroled one of the inmates who sued. A judge freed another of the rounded-up inmates after his attorney discovered he had received an illegal sentence.
Several legal observers said it appears the state — despite the Supreme Court’s strong wording — charted a straightforward course. Round up as few prisoners as possible. Stir up as little litigation as possible.
Lincoln attorney Jerry Soucie said state officials “clearly” weren’t interested in going to court over the roundup.
Soucie doesn’t criticize the state for leaving prisoners out, but for bringing them in. He noted that the returned prisoners were not given an initial court hearing when they were brought back into custody.
But whether they left inmates out or brought others back, Soucie sees one common denominator.
“It’s all haste,” Soucie said. “For some reason they wanted to short-circuit the process. I think that’s unfortunate.”
Clarence Mock, an Oakland, Nebraska-based defense attorney and former prosecutor, had another term for it.
“It’s ironic,” Mock said. “Especially when you consider that Corrections got into this mess by ignoring not one but two Supreme Court rulings. Now we have another Supreme Court ruling that is crystal clear and we’re not following that? This whole thing has just been baffling.”
Back in prison for the fourth time, Alamilla says he can’t escape his memories of JR.
How he held JR’s son, Eli, as a baby. How he told JR: “Dude, he has your eyes. You don’t need a DNA test.” How JR had asked him to look after Eli’s mother if anything happened.
He fiddles with his inmate bracelet.
His new “dream sheet” — the term inmates use for the document with their projected release date — has him free on Feb. 13, 2024.
That accounts for the sentence he received for motor vehicle homicide. But the dream sheet doesn’t tack on the 18 months he still owes on his original drug-dealing conviction.
Alamilla says he had no idea he shouldn’t have been out.
“That’s crazy,” he says. “I’ve thought about that a lot.”
He says his mind often races — the crash replaying, image by image, off each block of his cell walls in Lincoln.
The drunken stupidity. The recklessness. The car rolling. The belly crawl out of the vehicle. The scramble to find JR. The cold realization that his best friend was dead.
“I look at these walls every day and I think ‘If Jerry could be alive right now, I would have sat right here,’ ” Alamilla says quietly. “I’d take the year and a half.
“What’s a year and a half, you know?”
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Time owed clarified
The original article overstated the amount of prison time that 51 prisoners owed the state because they had been convicted of additional crimes after being accidentally released early. The number, 113 years, included time for two prisoners who had died. It also included time for five other prisoners who were convicted of crimes after a proper release, such as work release or parole. Despite their crimes, all were released erroneously at later dates.
The article should have made clear that the newspaper’s figures were estimates based on preliminary data provided by the state in July. Information provided from the state Nov. 20 indicates that 52 prisoners had been convicted of more crimes after being accidentally released early. The state is still compiling a final account of all of the miscalculated sentences.