ANNAPOLIS — More than once, surviving family members of murder victims in Maryland have received messages stating incorrectly that their loved ones’ convicted killers were released from prison.
The announcement, especially when it’s not expected, can throw families into a panic.
It happened last year to a Frederick County family, the survivors of Ann Sue Metz, who was killed on Sept. 29, 2009. Marshall Franklin Metz Sr., her estranged husband, was convicted in 2010 of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years.
In May, her son Jimmy Trout and his family received an automated notice from Maryland’s Victim Information and Notification Everyday system: “This e-mail is to inform you that MARSHALL METZ has been released from custody as of 5/23/2016. If you have any concerns about your immediate safety, contact your local law enforcement agency, or if you have an emergency, call 911.”
Missing from the notice was information that Marshall Metz had died May 22.
The Trouts learned that fact through several frantic phone calls to the state’s prison system.
A bill under consideration in the Maryland General Assembly would address the issue. It would require the state to explore changes to the victim notification system with a focus on increasing the detail, accuracy and timeliness of messages sent.
The bill requires the state’s Department of Information Technology to analyze the current system and make recommendations for phasing in best practices established by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Russell Butler, executive director of the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center, said one of the most important factors in the federal standards is timeliness and a focus on real-time notifications. In domestic violence cases, for example, it’s best for a victim to learn as soon as possible that a perpetrator has been released.
Other federal standards talk about ease in registration and avoiding false or misleading notifications, things Butler wants to see Maryland embrace.
“I think that some of the errors and omissions that have occurred in the past will be eliminated — so that there will be notice where notice should be given,” he said.
Most recently, the federal standards were implemented by North Dakota, Illinois and Alabama, and earlier implementations of the standard were completed in Montana and Indiana, according to the Maryland Department of Legislative Services.
The Trouts’ story was shared with lawmakers during bill hearings Wednesday by Roberta Roper, founder of the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center.
“There was no language appropriate to inform them in a timely and accurate manner,” Roper said.
The organization highlighted other cases of imperfect notifications to families, including one instance when a family also received a message that their son’s convicted killer had been released. In reality, the man had been transferred from the state prison system to a federal penitentiary.
The bill was introduced by Sen. Susan Lee, D-Montgomery, and Delegate Jazz Lewis, D-Prince George’s County.
“This bill is important because of the benefits for timely and accurate information, without which victims may lose their rights in a proceeding. False information may cause unnecessary additional mental stress and trauma. In addition, if the information’s not received about a release, the victim may be put at risk of harm from retaliation,” Lee said.
The measure was well-received by committee members.
Trout said he was pleased to hear action may be taken this General Assembly session.
“She was able to change something — even eight years later,” Trout said of his mother’s legacy.
In 2013, Maryland lawmakers passed the state’s first “slayer” statute, named in honor of Ann Sue Metz, which makes it illegal for killers to benefit from the estates of their victims. That was prompted after Marshall Metz tried to sell the couple’s assets from behind bars.
“Everything that we’ve been through as a family has enabled so many good things to happen,” Trout said Wednesday.