CHICAGO – Two days after a stunning series of errors allowed a convicted murderer to walk out of a Chicago jail where he did not need to be in the first place, police recaptured the man at a northern Illinois home where he was found watching TV.
Steven L. Robbins, 44, put up no resistance Friday night as police burst through the door of a townhome in Kankakee, about 60 miles south of Chicago, said Cook County Sherriff’s Office spokesman Frank Bilecki.
“He was in the living room or kitchen area watching TV, taken by total surprise,” Bilecki said, adding it appears the homeowner might know an acquaintance of Robbins.
The mistaken release of the prisoner, who was serving a 60-year sentence in Indiana for murder, focused attention on an antiquated corner of the criminal justice system that still relies extensively on paper documents instead of computers in moving detainees around and keeping tabs on their court status.
The episode prompted promises of change, but also some finger-pointing about who was ultimately to blame for a mistake with precedent in the Cook County system.
“We’re not ducking the fact we dropped the ball. We made mistakes,” Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said Friday. “The public deserves much more. We’re going to find out what went wrong here.”
In Robbins’ case, his transfer to Illinois to begin with was the result of a mistake, officials said.
He was brought before a Cook County Circuit Court judge Tuesday and Wednesday over drug and armed violence charges in a case it turns out had been dismissed in 2007. But because law enforcement authorities were still seeing an active arrest warrant, his transfer was requested and approved, according to Dart’s office.
In a second lapse Dart took responsibility for, he acknowledged paperwork was lost that would have made it clear to Illinois officials Robbins was to be returned to Indiana custody. As a result, he was allowed to walk out of the Cook County Jail’s main gate Wednesday evening. It took another 24 hours before the public was alerted that he was on the loose.
But Dart and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, both prominent local Democrats, exchanged tense words Friday about who should accept responsibility for having Robbins brought to Chicago from Indiana.
Alvarez said her office had told Dart’s office Robbins’ drug and armed violence case was closed. But Dart’s office proceeded to bring him to Chicago, she said, because of confusion over the outcome of the case and because Robbins demanded to stand trial.
“The Cook County Sherriff’s Police, despite the fact that the assistant state’s attorney told them that they didn’t have to bring him back, they thought it would be better if they did bring him back to get this all cleared up because the guy keeps writing letters demanding trial,” Alvarez told reporters.
But Dart said his office sought – and was granted – permission from the state attorney’s office to bring Robbins to Chicago. The sheriff showed the Associated Press a copy of the extradition request from September signed by one of Alvarez’s prosecutors.
Robbins, a Gary, Ind., native, was serving a sentence for murder and weapons convictions out of Marion County in Indiana.
Witnesses to the 2002 killing told police Robbins was arguing with his wife outside a birthday party in Indianapolis when a man intervened, telling Robbins he should not hit a woman, according to court documents.
Witnesses said Robbins then retrieved a gun from a car and shot the man in the chest before fleeing. He started serving his sentence in October 2004.
He was expected to be transferred back to the state prison in Michigan City, Ind., Saturday.
“We are grateful that law enforcement caught him before he committed another crime,” Indiana Department of Corrections spokesman Doug Garrison said.
It is not the first time a prisoner has been mistakenly freed from the Cook County Jail. In 2009, Jonathan Cooper, who was serving a 30-year manslaughter sentence in Mississippi, was brought to Chicago to face charges that he failed to register as a sex offender.
Prosecutors dropped the charges because, as an inmate, he could not comply with the Sex Offender Registration Act. A clerk reportedly failed to include the Mississippi sentence information in Cooper’s file, and jail staff released him.
Cooper turned himself in several days later.