CINCINNATI — At least 19 inmates who are awaiting trial on federal charges such as money laundering, international drug trafficking, identity theft and distributing fentanyl have asked judges in the past two weeks for release from jail over fear they will contract COVID-19.
The Butler County Jail houses most people charged with serious crimes who are awaiting hearings in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati. As of April 1, Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones said no inmates have been diagnosed with COVID-19.
The pandemic raises a unique situation for federal judges who must balance the health risks of people who in some cases have been charged, but not convicted, of serious crimes with the dangers of releasing them into back into society.
“We will continue to fight to keep those who are deemed a danger to the community detained and work with the U.S. Marshals Service to limit the risk of infection into the jails,” said U.S. Attorney David DeVillers.
In recent weeks a judge did allow the release of one inmate – a 53-year-old man who is wheelchair bound and suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure, heart problems and needs a catheter.
U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Cole ordered the release of Larry Collins on March 13. He is now under electronic monitoring while awaiting trial on charges that he distributed cocaine and fentanyl which caused the death of one person and seriously injured another.
Prosecutors did not oppose Collins’ request so long as he is subject to home detention, Cole wrote in his order.
But prosecutors are fighting the vast majority of motions for release that are now pending before federal judges. Some are filed by defendants who argue that old age or health problems place them at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 while in prison.
To keep the Butler County Jail safe, Jones has restricted inmate visits, isolated sick inmates and placed new arrivals in a separate orientation area for three weeks.
Still the motions for release continue to be filed in federal court -- almost daily.
“Counsel is certain that the Court has received and will continue to receive several emergency motions asking that the prior orders of incarceration be modified due to the novel circumstances involving the COVID-19 disease,” wrote attorney Ed McTigue, in a motion asking U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Black to release his client from jail on bond.
“This disease is real and it is affecting so many people in this world. It is particularly affecting elderly people,” McTigue wrote, about his client Fred Jones, 67, who is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty for his role in a drug conspiracy.
Black has not yet ruled on this motion.
Meanwhile prosecutors are warning federal judges of the consequences of releasing potentially dangerous people into the community.
“Nothing about the COVID-19 pandemic reduces defendant’s danger to others,” assistant U.S. Attorney Christy Muncy wrote in a March 26 motion opposing the release of Scotty Shaffer Jr. He is awaiting trial for his alleged role in a large conspiracy to distribute kilos of crystal methamphetamine in the Cincinnati area.
“Defendant presents exactly the same danger to the community that he did at the time of the court’s original detention order -- if not more,” Muncy wrote. “The community is now more vulnerable to such danger given the COVID-19 pandemic. And because first responders are focused on the outbreak, they are less equipped to prevent and respond to wrongdoing.”
Muncy warned Cole about Shaffer’s past: “the defendant’s prior failures to appear, substance abuse history, active warrants, and criminal history (including at least six prior felony drug offenses), among other things.”
Cole has not yet ruled on this motion.
An attorney for William Graham III is asking for his release from jail for health reasons.
“Graham has a greater susceptibility to being infected as he has been diagnosed with sarcoidosis. Sarcoidosis is a chronic inflammatory condition that leads to the formation of persistent granulomas (or clumps of inflammatory cells) in the lungs. This, in turn, impacts his ability to breath,” wrote his attorney Peter Rosenwald in a recent motion.
Graham is awaiting trial on charges he participated in a drug smuggling operation between Mexico, Chicago, Milwaukee and Cincinnati, involving cocaine, methamphetamine and fentanyl. Several defendants charged in this conspiracy are asking to be released from jail due to COVID-19 fears.
U.S. District Court Judge Matthew McFarland has not yet ruled on Graham’s motion.
While most of these motions are being filed by defendants who are charged in drug cases, at least one involves an economic crime.
Barry Rene Isaacs has been charged in an eight-count indictment, stemming from his participation in schemes to defraud the IRS, merchants, financial institutions, and vulnerable victims, including a minor victim.
Isaacs is the founder and former CEO of Hope 4 Change, a Cincinnati nonprofit that provides housing and care for adults with developmental disabilities, drug addiction problems, and mental disorders.
“After eluding arrest for nine months, on January 30, 2020, officers with the United States Marshals Service Fugitive Task Force finally apprehended Isaacs in Houston, Texas … Upon questioning by officers, Isaacs provided a false name and claimed that he did not have any identification,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Ebunoluwa Taiwo wrote in a motion opposing his release.
“Isaacs continued to engage in significant fraudulent activity post-indictment, implicating not only economic harm, but also potential exploitation of vulnerable individuals. Isaacs traveled to Arizona to attempt to take custody of a former Hope 4 Change client’s newborn child, at first purporting to be the father of the child and later presenting the Department of Child Safety with fraudulent documentation in support of his request,” Taiwo wrote. “Moreover, the presence of fraudulent checks and check-making materials in the vehicle at the time of his arrest suggests that Isaacs may have been engaged in criminal activity up to his apprehension.”
“The potential prospect of an outbreak in correctional facilities does not diminish the public interest in keeping offenders like Isaacs off the streets and assuring the appearance of Isaacs at trial. Release under these circumstances may in fact pose additional dangers to the public given Isaacs’ history of evading arrest,” Taiwo wrote. “Should he cut off location monitoring and abscond, it is unreasonable to believe that law enforcement could quickly and successfully apprehend him as law enforcement is already stretched thin with the current health crisis.”
McFarland has not yet ruled on Isaacs motion for release.
If judges decide to release these inmates into the community, Muncy cautions them to do so carefully.
“Should the court consider granting the defendant’s motion, defendant should not be released into the community if he is exhibiting any signs of COVID-19. Instead, the United States Marshals should be granted the discretion to hold defendant if he exhibits symptoms,” Muncy wrote.