Emily Collins of Landover spent two undeserved hours behind bars at the county jail in Upper Marlboro yesterday because of mistakes that the sentencing judge blamed on a court clerk and the woman's former lawyer.
"It was a total screw-up," said Prince George's County Circuit Court Judge Vincent J. Femia, after holding an extraordinary night session to spring Collins from the 179-day jail sentence he had imposed earlier in the day.
"I didn't know what was happening," said a bewildered Collins wearing a leopard-spotted dress and red slippers as a sheriff's deputy escorted her out of the jail.
When Collins first appeared in Femia's courtroom in the afternoon, she had no idea that she would be a direct participant in the criminal justice process there. Rather, she came to sit with her 12-year-old som; a boy who Femia was about to send off to a state institution.
Collins had been sentenced to jail by Femia two months earlier at another hearing for her son when she refused to provide the judge with her address and got into a scuffle with the courtroom sheriffs. But Femia had released her on $1,000 bond that day and gave her 60 days to appeal the sentence.
The notice of appeal was filed and the necessary $55 filing fee paid in April by Collins attorney, former District Superior Court Judge Harry Alexander.
But then Alexander decided to withdraw from the case. He sent another notice to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals asking for an extension.
This second notice merely confused matters. The state appeals court rejected the extension request on the grounds that Alexander was not licensed to practice law in Maryland.
Alexander said last night that the "primary purpose" of his request for more time was to indicate to the court of special appeals that Collins had no lawyer, since he had withdrawn from the case.
"It was to protect her rights, but by virtue of an error, they failed to protect her."
At the special court session last night, Femia said that the county court clerk, after getting word that the appeals court had denied the extension, had improperly refrained from sending the appeals court the records in Collins' case. Femia noted that since collins had properly filed notice of appeal, her request for an extension was irrelevant and the records should have been sent anyway.
In court earlier in the afternoon, Femia said that because Collins had never completed her appeal to the higher court he was revoking bond and ordering her jailed.
Collins' son, who was sent to the State-run regional institute in Baltimore, had been taken out of the courtroom minutes earlier by sheriff's deputies. As he left, Collins' grandson called out the boy's name and the youth ruffled the baby's hair with his hand.
Femia then called Collins to the bench and, as she listened quietly, in contrast to her last appearance before him, he said she had run out of time.
At that moment, anticipating what was about to happen, for daughter yanked the grandson and quickly left the room. Femia said that he was ordering Collins' bond revoked and was sending her to jail.
Femia then consulted by telephone with Ernest A. Loveless Jr., chief judge of the circuit. He also called a member of the clerk's office who, according to Femia, was under the hair dryer at a local beauty parlor. They helped confirm that a mistake had been made.
A few minutes later, Femia led Collins, a deputy and a court reporter into a dark courtroom next to his office, flipped on the lights and announced to Collins that there had been an error.
"You probably won't understand what I'm going to say," he began and recited the litany of procedural and legal complications that had occurred. Collins stared blankly back.
At last night's special session, Femia said that "something began to gnaw at him" after he sentenced Collins to jail. He later personally unlocked the door of the clerk's office and rummaged through court records, where he discovered the error. "I'm not sending no woman to jail for a clerk's error," Femia said later.