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By Steven Beardsley
The Naples Daily News

FORT MYERS, Fla. - A Lee County grand jury reviewing the investigation into the murder of Fort Myers police Officer Andrew Widman recommended that defendants' criminal backgrounds be better scrutinized.
It also challenged the state to fully fund those efforts.
Two specific suggestions were that judges be allowed to hold defendants in jail for a "reasonable time" to check for outstanding warrants, and that they be provided with instant access to criminal databases.
Both of those steps, the six-page statement released Thursday said, would be effective in closing gaps in the judicial process. But they would also be costly, the grand jury noted.
Members called for the state to increase funding to the 20th Judicial Circuit, which it said "lags behind other areas of the state" in money per capita and per case.
Local law enforcement and court officials had positive words for the recommendations.
"I think it was interesting that there was an acknowledgment of how much we've been cut funding-wise," said Sheila Mann, spokeswoman for the Lee County courts.
State Attorney Stephen B. Russell called the idea of holding defendants on
probation for further warrant "a critical area to look at."
Widman was shot to death July 18 as he approached a suspect in a domestic dispute call in downtown Fort Myers.
That man, 26-year-old Abel Arango, had bonded out from a Lee County courtroom the month before, despite having an outstanding warrant for his arrest. After he shot Widman, Arango was killed by responding officers.
Two separate opportunities existed to stop Arango, both following his May arrest for drug possession. Arango was on felony probation at the time of his arrest, and theoretically could have been charged with violation of parole before his first appearance in front of a judge.
Instead, no charge was filed and the judge had to set bond, which Arango subsequently posted.
By the time of Arango's arraignment, one month later, the DOC had filed a warrant for his arrest. But a Lee County judge didn't have access to the criminal database that would have shown the outstanding warrant.
Arango, a Naples resident, bonded once again while the Collier County Sheriff's Office was searching for him.
In the statement released Thursday, the grand jury said it didn't want to "affix blame" for Arango's release, but to "determine whether any failures in the system occurred" and how to avoid those failures in the future.
Grand jury members focused on three primary concerns: Why Arango was released from court after his first appearance, why he was released after his arraignment and why he wasn't deported.
Members heard testimony from the agencies involved in Arango's life: The Florida Department of Corrections, the Lee and Collier sheriff's offices, the circuit court, and the State Attorney's Office.
The only agency that didn't respond to the grand jury: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"We are disturbed about the lack of accountability and responsiveness of ICE to the citizens of this community," the grand jury statement read.
On Thursday afternoon, ICE spokeswoman Nicole Navas released a statement that the agency decided "it would be more appropriate to have this meeting with all law enforcement partners and community leaders rather than with the grand jury."
Those groups were the "appropriate parties," Navas wrote, capable of understanding the complex legal limitations of holding Cuban nationals, who cannot be deported back to Cuba.
Arango was held on detainer for immigration purposes after a 2004 release from prison, but he was soon put on probation by DOC.
Also in the statement, the grand jury noted that the 20th Judicial Circuit Court is preparing to fulfill one of the recommendations: Sometime this winter, Lee County criminal judges will begin using an automated system to check defendants' criminal backgrounds before arraignment.
The $150,000 price tag of the system will be borne by the court, which will pay $100,000, and the Lee County Sheriff's Office, which will pay $50,000.
Grand jury members called on state and local officials to pay for the system.
The recommendation that judges be allowed to briefly hold probationers who face new felony offenses, will require legislative action, Russell said.
"I think it's a critical area to look at," he said on Thursday. "It requires the balance of constitutional (considerations) and the protection of the public, on the other hand."
For Mann, the spokeswoman for the Lee County courts, the measure could provide "breathing space" for judges who have to handle large case loads.
On the day Arango was arraigned, some 1,200 people were scheduled to appear at the Lee County Justice Center, more than 300 of whom were on the felony arraignment docket, like Arango.
The grand jury statement, she said, understood a central concern of an underfunded court system.
"Volume is the issue," she said.

Wire Service
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