Convicted Man Forced to Serve Sentence After Clerical Error Allowed Him to Walk Free for 13 Years
One day in 1999, a manager at Burger King went to deposit the day’s cash at a nearby bank in St. Charles, Missouri, when two men, one holding a BB gun, approached him and told him to drop the money.
One of those men was Cornealius “Mike” Anderson, who was eventually convicted of robbery and armed criminal action and sentenced to 13 years in prison. But due to an oversight, Anderson, who had filed appeals and was out on bail, was never brought to prison.
In a recent interview for the public radio show, "This American Life," Anderson said he saw it as a sign from God, so he decided to transform his life. He went to school, became a master carpenter, got married, built his home, opened several small businesses and had four children. Anderson volunteered at his church and coached his son’s football team.
“This is the type of person you want in the community,” Anderson’s lawyer, Patrick Michael Megaro, said. “This is not the type of person you want to segregate from the community.”
But that’s not what the state of Missouri had in mind. In July 2013, a SWAT teamed seized Anderson from his home to finally serve his 13-year sentence. Megaro is petitioning the Attorney General’s office to release him from custody. He also started a Change.org petition that has garnered nearly 8,000 signatures in one week. Even the victim of the crime, Dennis Leon Kerns, the former Burger King manager, believes Anderson should be set free.
“You got to give the guy a little bit of slack,” Kerns said. “Yeah, he screwed up when he was little, but the law dropped the ball — the law ought to drop it completely. They need to leave the man alone.”
Megaro said he believes Anderson’s case is striking a chord with people because it raises deep questions about the purpose of America’s prison system.
“If the criminal justice system and crime and punishment are designed to prevent a person from engaging in a certain type of behavior in the future — I think this man has accomplished that without prison,” he said. “For 13 years, he remained in the community and did nothing but positive things.”
In June 2000, Anderson was released on bail after being sentenced to 13 years in prison. From 2000 to 2004, he unsuccessfully filed a series of appeals, which in the end meant his bail should have been revoked, and he should have been sent to prison.
The courts seemingly believed Anderson was in prison, according to journalist Jessica Lussenhop, who broke the story in the Riverfront Times, St. Louis’ alternative newsweekly, and produced the piece for "This American Life." Anderson told her that during his last appeal in 2004, his lawyer filed a brief, in which the first line stated he was not currently incarcerated.
Anderson, who was not present at that appeal, said his lawyer told him that after reading the first line, the prosecutor jumped up to clarify that Anderson was indeed in prison. Confused, his attorney assumed the state must have imprisoned Anderson over the past few days when the two were not in contact. Anderson said that later, during a phone call, his lawyer was shocked he was still at home. His lawyer told him to expect to be taken to prison once the courts figured out their mistake.
Nine years went by, however, and no one ever put the pieces together. Meanwhile, Anderson remained in St. Louis, never changed his name, registered three businesses through the state, paid taxes, maintained a Missouri driver’s license, and got married at the courthouse. He did not attempt to hide his presence in any manner.
Lussenhop reports that the Missouri Department of Corrections only realized the clerical error when it was planning Anderson’s release.
On "This American Life," Lussenhop said:
I called the Department of Corrections, the county’s warrant officers, the original court where this happened, Missouri’s Attorney General, and the state’s Supreme Court, and no one would say anything about how Mike was one of their inmates, when he was, in fact, free.
Confusion remains over who made the error and why they are pursuing the sentence at this point.
“There are several mysteries in this case,” Megaro said. “One of them is, who authorized this action, and why they are bringing this up now. If I had to wager a guess, I think that the Missouri Department of Corrections is simply doing that which it believes it is mandated to do, which is, ‘this person is a sentenced prisoner, we have to execute on the sentence. That is our function under the law.’… The whys, and the details don’t really concern them.”
This type of error is unprecedented. Megaro said he never seen or heard of Anderson’s circumstance before.
“I had to dig really deep in the law books to find any instances of something even close to his scenario,” he said. “This was a new one.”
Odds Up In the Air
One of Megaro’s first steps was to file a petition to Ian Wallace, the warden of the correctional facility where Anderson is currently imprisoned, for writ of habeas corpus in December 2013. Writ of habeas corpus is a legal measure used to challenge the illegal detention of a person.
The petition argued that imprisoning Anderson now violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of due process of law, in which speedy punishment is inherent. In other words, if the court does not execute its own sentence in a reasonable amount of time, the court loses jurisdiction. Megaro’s petition also argues that Anderson’s imprisonment violates the Eighth Amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment. Megaro said challenging on due process is a common procedure, and depending on the case, can often be successful, while the Eighth Amendment is used less frequently and is not as often successful.
After Anderson's segment of "This American Life" aired, Megaro filed a supplemental petition on February 21 — adding both of Lussenhop’s pieces and mentioning the Change.org petition. The court then issued an order for Missouri’s attorney general to respond to his arguments by April 15. However, Megaro said he might have to wait even longer for a response, as the state often asks for an extension of time for initial responses. When he does obtain a response, the court will then schedule a hearing. At this hearing, Megaro plans to submit the signatures from the Change.org petition, hoping it will encourage the attorney general to reconsider Anderson's case.
Megaro said that while petitions to habeas corpus are often not granted, Anderson’s case is a very different scenario. If the petition is denied, Megaro said he’s committed to fighting this “long and torturous process.” One pathway is to file an appeal to the Missouri Court of Appeals, and if that fails, the Missouri Supreme Court, and finally the U.S. Supreme Court. Another way is to seek to hear the case in a federal court. If unsuccessful, he could apply to the U.S. Court of Appeals, and then the U.S. Supreme Court as well.
If all else fails, Megaro plans to petition Missouri governor Jay Nixon for executive clemency. Since Nixon, a Democrat, became governor in 2009, he has only granted clemency one time. An editorial written last year shows that Nixon’s behavior is in “stark contrast” to other governors’ actions, such as the governor of Illinois, who has granted more than 900 pardon petitions. The editorial suggested that the lack of transparency in Missouri’s pardon process has allowed Nixon to consistently deny these petitions without reason.
In terms of getting any kind of early release, Megaro said he doesn’t believe there’s a provision in law that would allow the court to modify the sentence. Therefore, the state of Missouri can either execute or not execute the order for Anderson to serve 13 years.
“I think it’s an all-or-nothing type of scenario,” Megaro said.
Scrutinizing the System
The case raises profound questions about the purpose of incarceration and whether authorities can recognize individuals for their own personal growth and contributions to society.
Anderson said that on that night in 1999, he was caught up in the wrong crowd. He said he was so embarrassed about the incident that he never shared it with his wife, and though he always wanted to, he never worked up the courage to find his victim to apologize.
The victim, Dennis Leon Kerns, contacted Jessica Lussenhop when he read her piece in the Riverfront Times after realizing he was the Burger King manager she wrote about. Lussenhop reported that when she met with Kerns, he said the robbery left him deeply paranoid, so he was angry at first upon learning that Anderson never served his sentence.
“But then the more I thought about it, it was like, what they are doing to him is not right,” Kerns said. “He wasn’t out robbing other people… he seemed to have gotten his life together.” Lussenhop reported that Kern said he’s open to filing a letter stating that he believes Anderson should be released.
It will cost the state of Missouri $20,000 a year just to house and feed Anderson. None of this makes any sense to Megaro.
“If he was able to do that which the justice system is designed to effectuate himself,” he said, “then what is the point of putting him in prison at this point?”
This question leads to others, such as is prison the best way to rehabilitate offenders, especially nonviolent ones? Currently, more than half of U.S. prisoners are serving time for nonviolent offenses. More than 3,000 people are serving life without parole for nonviolent crimes.
Meanwhile, Anderson’s wife has been left to support their four children — ages two, seven, 11 and 12 — since July.
“Emotionally, physically, I’m exhausted. I work full-time, and I’m taking care of all the children,” LaQonna Anderson said. “It is hard going from working as a team — because we are a team — to just now one income and trying to do everything by myself.”
LaQonna first found out about Anderson’s sentence the day he was ripped from their home. She said she was “devastated.” She said she understands that her husband didn’t want to burden her by telling her what had happened in his past.
“Mike is the type of person who tries to hold everything on his shoulders,” she said.
LaQonna said she misses her husband deeply, and that her two-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son constantly ask when their father will be home.
“Our son plays the trombone, our daughter plays the violin — he’s missed those concerts,” she said. “Our seven-year-old — he missed his birthday. He missed our daughter’s birthday. Our two-year-old — she’s growing, she’s getting taller, she’s saying things. On Thanksgiving, our seven-year-old lost his first tooth. He also missed our anniversary. It’s been a lot.”
Anderson doesn’t want LaQonna and his children to see him in prison, so they communicate only by phone. She said he is holding up, and they are keeping each other uplifted. She hopes that people will continue to sign the Change.org petition asking that Cornealius Anderson be released from prison.
Those involved in this case, from petition signers to lawyers to family members say it deserves scrutiny because it has larger implications about our society.
“It brings up a broader question of why are we doing this?” Megaro said. “Is this the kind of society we want to be? A strict, rigid adherence to the rule of law no matter what the consequences are? Or do we want to take a different approach and say, ‘What does justice require in each particular case?’” he said. “I think that’s the essence of what this case is about.”
To sign the Change.org petition click here.