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Couple's murder-suicide puts focus on Pennsylvania bail system

| Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016, 11:25 p.m.

The murder-suicide of a couple in Washington County last week drew criticism of the way a judge handled domestic violence charges that had been pending against the husband, but highlighted what some say is a flawed bail system in Pennsylvania.

“You could not describe our bail system in any other manner than haphazard,” said John E. Wetzel, Pennsylvania secretary of Corrections. “I would even be hesitant to say we have a bail system.”

Some parts of Pennsylvania, such as Allegheny County and Philadelphia, are exceeding expectations or working toward a better system of pretrial justice, while others are lacking, said Cherise Fanno Burdeen, the CEO of the Pretrial Justice Institute, an organization based in Rockville, Md., that advocates for safe, fair and effective pretrial practices and policies.

Burdeen said most jails are filled with pretrial defendants who can't pay their bails, so they remained locked up.

The current system sets bail to guarantee an offender's appearance at trial. But who stays in jail and gets out is based on an offender's ability to pay.

Wetzel advocates a system that would assign bail based on a risk assessment that might include whether the offense is violent, the offender's age and whether the accused has a criminal record and the seriousness of past crimes.

“The purpose of the risk-needs tool for the judges is not to replace their discretion, but it's to give them more information and more objective information ... which is what our system should be accomplishing,” he said.

Wetzel has asked the Council of State Governments Justice Center to look into the bail system as part of a bipartisan Justice Reinvestment Initiative under way in Pennsylvania. The center is a nonprofit that offers evidence-based strategies to increase public safety.

A reformed bail system is needed to better protect domestic violence victims from their abusers, Wetzel said.

“I don't know how many of these horrible cases are going to have to happen until we move on this,” he said.

Authorities said that Kevin Ewing, 47, kidnapped his wife, Tierne Ewing, 48, at gunpoint from a West Finley, Washington County, home. The incident came shortly after Ewing was released on bond after having been accused of abducting his wife and holding her captive for 13 days.

Ewing posted his $100,000 bond in that case and was put on electronic monitoring by Common Pleas Judge Gary Gilman who, despite a prosecutor's request, did not raise the bail, which might have kept Ewing in jail. After the second abduction, Ewing took his wife to a barn where he shot her in the head and then turned the gun on himself, authorities said.

Gilman previously declined to comment through his staff and could not be reached Tuesday.

Inequity for accused cited

Wetzel, who lost a childhood friend in a domestic violence murder-suicide last year, said the system is flawed.

“If I'm somebody who has means, and I'm accused of raping a bunch of people, and they set my bail at $1 million, I'm making bail. You can't make the argument that that decision is about public safety. That decision is about money, and I don't think money's a good proxy for risk,” he said.

Richard Long is the executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association in Harrisburg. Long agreed the bail system in the state isn't perfect and said his organization is open to ways to improve it.

But he also offered criticism of data-driven initiatives.

“It's not like you can just put information into a computer and spit out what the appropriate bail would be; I don't think that would be realistic,” he said. “There are people that are charged with making that decision ... looking at all the facts and all the input they get.”

A ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit filed Thursday showcases problems with the bail system.

In October 2012, Joseph Curry was arrested and charged with theft by deception and conspiracy for an alleged theft at a Wal-Mart in Lehigh County. Curry could not post his $20,000 bail, so he remained in jail, the ruling said. While in jail, Curry missed the birth of his only child, lost his job and feared losing his home and vehicle. He pleaded no contest to the charges so he could return home.

The court upheld the dismissal of a 2014 lawsuit brought by Curry for claims of malicious prosecution, false arrest and false imprisonment, but it did so “with some reluctance.”

The ruling goes on to say that access to wealth often determines whether a defendant is freed, and those who remain in jail are often forced to accept a plea deal to get out.

Treatment of abuse cases faulted

Jennifer Storm, victim advocate for the state, has experienced problems with the state's bail system. She said in many instances, violent offenders post a low bond amount or are released on their own recognizance; often the bail is not comparable to the crime.

She said she would like to see risk assessments at the pretrial level that consider the danger someone poses, and said protection-from-abuse orders are rarely used in sentencing.

She said judges might not consider domestic violence offenders to be threats to public safety because there is only one target.

As for the Washington County case, Storm said there's a specific bail condition that says in domestic violence cases you have to take into consideration whether an abuser poses a threat to a victim. Storm said the judge should have denied Ewing's bail based on the severity of the charges, which included kidnapping, aggravated assault, terroristic threats, false imprisonment and other crimes.

“I just don't understand how a judge can look at this guy, look at the charges, look at the PFA violation and not determine that he was a threat to the victim,” she said.

Madasyn Czebiniak is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7822 or mczebiniak@tribweb.com.

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