Cornell Corrections involved in release of convicted murderer

Posted: Monday, March 26, 2001

The absence of crucial pieces of documentation resulted in the release of a convicted murderer from a Cornell Corrections-operated facility in Santa Fe, N.M., earlier this month.

The inmate was back in custody the day after his release. By late last week no fault had been established. The Santa Fe District Attorney's Office is investigating the incident.

On Feb. 23, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly selected a team led by Cornell Companies to work with the borough toward development of an 800- to 1,000-bed minimum security private prison.

Assembly President Tim Navarre praised Cornell's team for its "experience, qualifications and resources." However, assembly member Paul Fischer of Kasilof interjected a note of caution that evening.

"Something I think we need to be concerned about no matter which company (is selected), is liability of the borough," said Fischer in terms of the borough's role in operating a correctional facility.

An anonymous telephone call notified the Santa Fe Police Department that Luis Lopez-Cota, 24, who pleaded guilty to homicide in October 2000, had been released by mistake from Santa Fe County Detention Center on March 9.

Cota was back in custody March 10.

"We checked with Cornell and they verified the release," Santa Fe Deputy Police Chief Beverly Lennen wrote in a March 19 e-mail in response to questions about the incident.

"Apparently (Cornell) received an order for release from the Magistrate Court (standard procedure on a felony), but did not receive either the transport order or the District Court sentencing paperwork that should have accompanied the magistrate release," Lennen wrote. "The District Attorney's Office is investigating to determine where things broke down.

"We addressed public safety by bringing officers in on overtime to conduct an area-by-area search," Lennen wrote. "We also notified the public of the release and cautioned persons not to approach -- to contact police if they came in contact with Cota. We released pictures and were assisted in great part by local and area media sources."

Lennen said a second anonymous telephone tip lead searchers to where Cota was staying.

"Thankfully, he was back in custody without incident by 1 p.m. the following day, thanks to some excellent work by our patrol division," Lennen wrote.

Paul Doucette, director of public affairs for Cornell Companies Inc., said Cota had been in the detention facility for approximately three months.

"On the day in question, we received an order to release the inmate," Doucette said. "This is important to us because critics (of private prisons) say we keep inmates longer than we should. But we always say the same thing: we don't take anyone that the judge doesn't send there. We don't control who's there and who isn't."

Although Santa Fe police "picked the fellow up and booked him back into the jail on escape charges," Doucette said he had been released on a legitimate order from the magistrate.

"State court had taken care of the trial and sentencing but had not filed the proper remand and hold order with the jail," Doucette said. "He should have been transferred by court order in October to the state penitentiary. Once you're found guilty, the court where you are found guilty would file paperwork ordering transfer to the state penitentiary. However, that order never came.

"So we had no paperwork, nothing to tell us officially that this guy was supposed to be transferred to prison," Doucette said. "When the magistrate's order came to release the man, we did."

Doucette said Cornell, the district attorney, the magistrate and everyone else involved with the incident "are going to sit down and talk about this and see how it happened and ensure it never happens again."

"We make mistakes. Everyone does," Doucette said. "But we didn't make this one."

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