Marshall Metz had served five years of a life sentence for murdering his wife when his stepson Jimmy Trout got a startling message from Maryland's automated victim-notification service: "This e-mail is to inform you that Marshall Metz has been released from custody."
In fact, Metz had died.
That's what Trout and his wife Cindy soon learned by calling the state prison where Metz had been sent for killing Ann Sue Metz.
But when Trout first read the email, "my mind was going all over the place," said the Frederick businessman and chief judge of Frederick County's probate court. Although Trout knew his 71-year-old stepfather had been in failing health, "it still sends chills up your spine when you get that, and you're thinking, 'Oh, my God, what'd they do? Let him out?'"
It was a particularly distressing example of something that happens regularly all over the country, The Associated Press has learned, as states strive to meet a 2004 federal mandate to notify crime victims of certain events, including an offender's death: Most death notifications don't mention death.
The message Trout received was the one a contractor has routinely sent for years to registered victims of deceased Maryland inmates on behalf of the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
But spokesman Gerard Shields said the agency is revising its death-notification procedures, effective Oct. 1, after a review prompted by the Trout case, which was first reported by The Frederick News-Post.
The new message, like those in most other states, will just say there's been a change in the inmate's custody status, and to contact the agency for more information. Shields said the department aims to revise the message further by mid-October to inform recipients that the offender has died.
In Maryland and all but two other states, crime victims receive automated notifications from a privately held, Louisville, Kentucky-based contractor called Appriss. The company says it sends tens of millions of notifications annually, by phone, email, direct mail and text message, through a system called VINE, for Victim Information and Notification Everyday. CEO Michael Davis said he hears just one or two complaints a year about inaccurate VINE notifications like the one Trout received.
But in a 2013 Justice Department study, public agencies listed inaccurate notifications as the biggest challenge for automated victim notification systems. The study also found that deaths were among the most common triggers for notifications.
"You get it wrong, it's very, very emotionally distressing for people," said Anne Seymour, a Washington-based crime victim advocate who helped develop guidelines and standards for statewide automated victim notification programs in 2006.
The computerized VINE system works by regularly checking the offender status codes that public agencies enter into their own computer systems. Certain codes automatically trigger VINE notifications. Death notices are problematic partly because most states, including Maryland, have open registration policies enabling anyone - not just victims - to receive the notifications.
Out of respect for the family's privacy, most messages triggered by inmate death codes don't say the inmate died, Appriss spokesman Aaron Davis said. Instead, most of the company's customers instruct VINE to send generic messages stating that the offender's custody status has changed, and to contact the agency for more information, Davis said.
Maryland's prison agency took a different approach under its VINE contract, which cost about $800,000 last year. To avoid broadcasting inmate deaths, the agency's practice for years has been to change the deceased inmate's status code to one meaning, "no longer in our custody," Shields said.
After Metz died, the VINE system automatically sent what Davis called a "standard release notification" to Jimmy Trout on May 23. The message urged him to call 911 if he was concerned about his safety. It also included phone numbers for an agency office and the Western Correctional Institution.
Shields said the agency's Victim Services Unit tried to call Trout that day to clarify Metz's status, per department policy, but couldn't leave a message on the family's home phone. Shields said the unit then sent Trout a letter, but Trout says he never got it.
Shields said the department apologized to Trout last week, after the AP began investigating its procedures. "We are very sorry this happened and are going to do our part to ensure it doesn't happen again," Shields wrote in an email to the AP.
He said Maryland's new death notifications will state that there's no emergency and that the offender has not been released. The Victim Services Unit will still call and leave phone messages when possible, he said.
Seymour, the victim advocate, said death notifications should include personal contact.
The voluntary guidelines and standards Seymour helped develop don't specifically address death notifications. The document favors limiting registration to victims and survivors, and also recommends personal identification numbers so registrants can acknowledge receipt of messages.
The 2013 Justice Department report praised New Mexico's VINE system for incorporating PINs, and for its regular audits that flag questionable notifications.
Trout said he's pleased with the changes.
"That's good, that we can do something and maybe keep someone else from having a heart attack," he said.
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