LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — You’ve probably heard about house arrest and bail or bond, all alternatives to being in jail while awaiting trial. But did you know accused murderers are not always in custody?
At least 35 defendants charged with murder in Clark County are not in jail. The circumstances vary: a woman who police say shoved an elderly man off a bus, a security guard accused of killing a man on the job and several alleged acts of domestic violence.
At least nine are accused of killing children, most of whom were their own.
“He paid less for his bond than the cost of my child’s funeral,” said mother Veronica Melton.
Melton’s son Giovanni was 14-years-old. Her ex-husband, Wendell Melton, is accused of shooting him back in 2017 because he was gay.
Today, Wendell is on house arrest, awaiting trial.
“I don’t understand the system,” Melton said.
Metro Deputy Chief Laz Chavez notes on average, 30 to 40 people charged with murder in Clark County are not behind bars. That’s just under 10% of open murder cases.
“It’s frustrating,” he said.
Metro Police keep track of electronic monitoring and house arrest.
“Some of the worst crimes, which is taking the life of another human being, is that the one where you get to go home? Or not? I would argue that it’s not,” said Chavez.
Criminal Defense Attorney Ozzie Fumo stresses, “You are innocent until proven guilty …. Just because the accusation is made that someone has committed a crime doesn’t mean they’re guilty of that crime. You know, there is a process for it.”
The burden falls on prosecutors to convince a judge to keep the person in jail.
“In 99% of these cases, the district attorney’s office seeks a significant bail,” said Steve Wolfson, Clark County district attorney.
He notes that may be as much as a million dollars in some cases.
“It’s always up to the judge,” Wolfson explained.
The judge considers whether the defendant will be a danger to the community.
According to Metro, from 2018 to 2020, eight defendants charged with murder, who were on house arrest, were accused of committing new crimes, including assault, a sex offense and more.
The judge also considers whether a defendant will willingly return to court. The department reports no defendants charged with murder fled over the past two years.
But in 2019, Christopher Prestipino was a no-show. He’s accused of killing a woman and dumping her body in the desert. He posted a $500,000 bond. Police found him at his house while he was supposed to be in court and took him back to jail.
“It took the wind out of the sails of all of us, thinking that ‘this is the one that meets the criteria for house arrest?'” Chavez recounted.
The I-Team examined court records to find out whether certain judges were more likely to grant bail, house arrest or electronic monitoring for defendants charged with murder. We found no major trends.
“I think now, we’re equaling the scales of justice because we have judges who understand the law,” said Fumo.
In regards to the issue, attorney Jonathan MacArthur told the I-Team:
The release of persons charged with homicide from custody on electronic monitoring only seems odd to a public that presumes the guilt of the accused. Incarceration after a conviction serves the purpose of punishment. Incarceration prior to conviction is solely intended to insure the safety of the community and that the accused will return to court as expected.
Freedom from incarceration is a constitutionally protected right in the United States that should be afforded to anyone who 1) poses no threat to others; and 2) can be expected to return to court when required. Defendants who do not satisfy the two aforementioned requirements are, as a rule, not casually released to electronic monitoring.
Additionally, not all homicide cases are created equal. There’s a huge difference between a serial killer, who we all agree would appropriately remain incarcerated while awaiting trial, and a murder defendant who has no prior criminal history; is a retired home owner; reliably comes to court; and has a viable claim of self-defense.
The criminal justice system works best when it is mindful of these important differences and avoids painting with a broad brush based solely on the title of a criminal charge.”Jonathan MacArthur, Esq.
“We will continue to investigate these crimes. What happens afterwards, in my opinion, needs to be looked at and maybe reconsidered,” said Chavez.
Wolfson says a defendant out of custody can sometimes delay a case. If a defendant isn’t in jail, he explains their legal team may not hesitate in asking for continuances.
Melton says she’s been waiting more than three years for justice.
“I still have a dead child,” she lamented.
In one case, the I-Team found that bail was reduced for the defendant due to COVID-19. According to court records, he has asthma.
Metro Police say as of Thursday, 15 inmates had COVID-19 and were in isolation. Chavez insists there is room for defendants charged with murder to be safely housed. Metro reports 36% vacancy.