West Virginia Judge suspended after paperwork errors cost 2 men their lives

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A West Virginia judge has been suspended without pay after paperwork errors cost two men their lives. His case shows an overall strain on the Mountain State’s legal system, and how malpractice can become normalized when resources are lacking.

Kanawha County Magistrate Jack Pauley was first elected to serve as a magistrate in 1992. For decades, he served on the bench in West Virginia’s capital and according to his lawyer, never “caught a charge” for improper action.

That is until, while working a late night shift on Aug. 25, 2016, Pauley signed a domestic violence petition against Housein Keaton.

The form had actually been filled out by Pauley’s assistant and the magistrate did not read it first. It contained what proved to be a fatal error.

Although Keaton owned firearms, the part that would have allowed police to take his guns away was not properly filled out.

That proved to be a grave mistake, after Keaton was found dead on his porch. A victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Keaton was found dead at 2:15 a.m. This was just over three hours after Pauley left his shift an hour early.

To make matters worse, if Pauley had been there until midnight as scheduled, he would have been able to sign an arrest warrant for Keaton that the police brought to his desk sometime after he left.

It was not the only time a mistake Pauley made would cost a man his life. In a second case, a man died in jail. And it was not even supposed to be Pauley’s case at all.

Pauley had taken the case over for another magistrate, Julia Yeager. Yeager was out for medical reasons, so Pauley signed the release order for Joshua Miles, 36, on Aug. 12 last year. This time, the form was signed properly but apparently, the fax did not go through.

Despite this, someone in magistrate’s office actually picked up the report and noted the transmission failure and filed it with Miles’ documents. There is no record of a resend attempt.

Pauley claims that no one in the office told him it never went through, likely because it was not supposed to be his case.

Meanwhile, the jail — which never received the release form — kept Miles in lockup. The next morning, Miles — who had been told by a family member in a phone call he was supposed to be released —  was found unresponsive in his cell at South Central Regional Jail.

During his hearing on Nov. 27, Pauley expressed remorse for the mens’ deaths, but noted that the caseload for magistrates was overwhelming and made it impossible to keep up.

“In Kanawha County, we’ll have over 14,000 misdemeanors in a year,” Pauley said when he appeared to answer for the charges in front of the state Judicial Investigation Commission. “We’ll have 3,500, 4,000 felonies, and it’s just to keep the system moving to accomplish something.”

As punishment for his malpractice, Pauley was suspended from the bench for 45 days without pay, censured, and ordered to pay back over $7,000 in fees associated with the investigation.

The magistrate, who admitted his screwups had led to two men’s deaths, is proof of a harsh reality for the West Virginia legal system, which is one that has already shown to have deadly consequences.

The growing opioid epidemic in the state has sparked a sharp rise in crime in Kanawha County and others hard hit by the drug scourge. In 2016, the crime rose 17 percent and it is getting worse, not better. Everyone on the front lines is feeling the strain of the influx of cases linked to opioid abuse.

Pauley’s absence will, ironically, likely further strain the Kanawha County courts. The courts, at the time Pauley’s suspension on Jan. 5, had not yet announced if any additional personnel would be in place to handle the overwhelming workload facing the magistrates since the opioid crisis has taken over Charleston and other West Virginia towns.