Corey Marquaz Purnell is scheduled to be sentenced for a probation violation on Wednesday, February 17. He was found guilty of the violation after a fight inside the Alger County Jail with the ruling coming from recently-elected 11th Circuit Court Judge Brian Rahilly after deliberations held on January 20.
However, the case against Purnell has been complicated for over a year, but recent developments occurring in different parts of the Alger County government directly questions the prosecution’s case against Purnell — namely discussions in the Law Enforcement Committee and comments made by Alger County Sheriff Todd Brock to the Alger County Commission to increase staffing within the county jail.
This further complicates one of the most confusing and longest-lasting cases in the Upper Peninsula and overlaps with safe staffing levels for the Alger County Jail.
WHO IS PURNELL?
Purnell is a former Michigan Department of Corrections inmate who was serving his sentence at Alger Correctional Facility. He was charged with assaulting a corrections officer on or around September 18, 2018, inside the prison. The case was delayed for months as the defense requested evidence from Michigan Department of Corrections and it never came. In a pretrial conference on January 8, 2020, the delays had frustrated former 11th Circuit Court Judge William Carmody.
“This file is a year old now. I don’t want to die with this file,” he said.
Things came to a head on March 4, 2020 when an in-chamber discussion with Carmody and attorneys lasted over 45 minutes and was so heated voices could be heard out in the hallway, but that discussion was not put on the record.
Purnell took a plea agreement on June 3, 2020. He admitted to spitting water in the face of the corrections officer.
HOW DID PURNELL END UP IN COUNTY JAIL?
Purnell’s initial sentence ended while awaiting evidence from Michigan Department of Corrections. As Alger Correctional Facility is located within the jurisdiction of the county, Purnell was transferred from the prison to the county jail. It was ruled in his plea agreement that he would serve one year in the county jail with credit for the time he served since being relocated from the prison.
Purnell would be on probation an additional three years and any violation of that probation would send him back to prison and the Michigan Department of Corrections.
WHAT WERE THE CHARGES?
Purnell was charged with three alleged probation violations. A condition of his probation is that he “must not engage in any assaultive, abusive, threatening or intimidating behavior.” Probation Officer Bill Schieding filed three separate incidents that alleged a violation of this clause of Purnell’s probation agreement on October 1, 2020. An evidentiary hearing for the charges occurred on January 20, 2021.
The first was an incident involving a broom poked through the meal slot of a cell door. Rahilly ruled that the prosecution failed to meet the preponderance of evidence to show malice or intimidation against another inmate, especially after Purnell’s testimony matched a jail video showing that it amounted to horseplay. The charge was dismissed.
A second incident was listed as a he-said, he-said situation with a jail deputy, also alleging threatening behavior by Purnell, but there was no video of the exchange. Rahilly wrote in his decision that no video was a considerable factor.
“Again, it is not just about what evidence is part of the record, but also what evidence is not part of the record. It was established that there was video of this incident but due to retention policy it was not available,” Rahilly wrote. “It seems if this incident was considered anything more than a day-to-day incident then the video should have been preserved. Without the video the Court lacks an important piece of evidence.”
The second charge was also dismissed.
The third charge was based on a fight inside the jail, where two other people incarcerated at the time in the county jail were fighting against Purnell. Video of the fight did not show who started the altercation, but through the testimony and depicted in Rahilly’s written ruling, Purnell was losing. A single Alger County Jail worker attempted to stop the fight and it momentarily halted. Purnell then punched one of the inmates he was fighting with and the fight erupted again. The prosecution argued that there were two separate fights; the defense said it was a single, continued event.
Rahilly ruled that the fight had stopped and Purnell restarted it, citing the video evidence. This separate fight constituted a violation of the probation order. The ruling was made through written decision on January 25, 2021.
WHAT COMMENTS WERE MADE THAT QUESTIONS THE RULING?
“We had a fight in the jail and we couldn’t break it up. It was between an inmate from the prison and two from the jail and we couldn’t break it up.”
Sheriff Todd Brock said that in a special meeting of the Alger County Commission on January 28, just three days after the ruling. Brock did not mention Purnell by name, but there is not another jail fight case on the docket for either the 11th Circuit Court or the 95th District Court, let alone one that deals with an inmate moved from the prison.
This was a carry over of a discussion from the Alger County Law Enforcement Committee held on January 27. In the meeting minutes for the Law Enforcement Committee meeting, it also mentions a fight involving a prison inmate at the jail.
Brock said that the comments he made in the meetings were used as examples of what was happening as staff cuts are going on at the prison after talking with his staff. Due to budget shortfalls in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the county commission has tried to find multiple ways to save money. One of those ways was to cut staff at the county jail. The budget has been an ongoing discussion at multiple county government meetings independent of any issues with the charges regarding Purnell.
“Third shift needs help,” Brock said in a one-on-one interview with Roam Media. “We have to be staffed properly. At any given point a fight could break out. There could be a suicide attempt. There could be a medical emergency where we’ve had people fall out of the top bunk and need help and we have to be staffed properly so we can address whatever comes up.”
According to Brock, the usual protocol for entering cells in emergencies requires two jail staff to enter together and another watches on the cameras. Two deputies are needed in case of a staged fight to try and spark an escape or to attack a specific guard.
WHY IS ALL OF THIS COMING OUT AFTER DELIBERATIONS?
Except for some court staff, every person involved in the deliberations are in different roles or replaced completely from previous hearings. Carmody retired in December and Rahilly heard the deliberations on just his second day on the bench.
Alger County Prosecutor Robert Steinhoff originally argued the assault on a prison employee case, but had recused himself from the probation violation case due to a personal connection to one of the staff involved at the jail. Delta County Prosecutor Brett Gardner was assigned the case. Alger County Indigent Defense Attorney Jana Mathieu had to recuse herself because she also defended one of the inmates involved in the jail fight. Karl Numinen from Marquette County took over for Purnell’s defense.
Probation officers typically present evidence to the court regarding probation violations given the preponderance of evidence required for conviction. However, Schieding served as a witness this time given the seriousness of the punishment of putting Purnell back into the Michigan Department of Corrections.
Conversely, nobody in the Law Enforcement Committee meetings had a reason to be in court. That committee consists of two county commissioners, the county administrator, clerk, and members from the Sheriff’s Office and Prosecutor’s Office. The two commissioners were never in the courtroom for any of the proceedings regarding Purnell and Brock does not serve as a bailiff for the courts.
The other factor is that the defense did not argue over any staffing concerns. Numinen asked Purnell about his perspective about whether the fight was still ongoing or not and questioned Scheiding’s motives behind the charges. Gardner didn’t bring up staffing at all, but on the cross examination of the probation officer, he reestablished the investigative process used by Scheiding in discussing the alleged incidents with county jail staff. There is no reason to believe that Gardner would understand or be aware of staffing issues in the jail being from Delta County. A judge has to hear the arguments presented by the two sides in the courtroom. Any evidence or testimony has to go through a process to be considered legitimate, so any argument outside of what is presented to the court is not typically accepted.
SO HOW DOES THIS AFFECT THE PUBLIC OF ALGER COUNTY
First, it does exactly what Brock intended it to do. A situation that is razor-thin at the judicial level highlights the safety risks for staff and inmate alike at the Alger County jail. Whether they are working or incarcerated, the people in county jails are more than likely our neighbors. Most of the county population knows someone that has been in the jail for one reason or another over the last year. If they don’t know them at the jail, they know them at the prison, since Alger Correctional Facility is the largest employer in the county. As residents of the Upper Peninsula, we usually pride ourselves on knowing and caring for our neighbors and want them to be safe in whatever situation they are in.
Additionally, it means it is time to talk more about the ongoing budget issue at the county level. The county commission meeting that Brock made these comments at was not a regular meeting. It was an additional agenda item to the special meeting called about discrepancies in pay due to the 27 paydays in 2021. Additional staff members are being brought in on a temporary basis, but it will cost the county more money and it is unclear how that money is going to be budgeted to safely staff the jail. There are multiple millages in play that could be applied to help, but would require an increase to establish the proper funding.
Finally, it showcases the complexity of the county judicial system in every single part. The breakdown of conflicts of interest, the ripple effect this case had through other cases and why the system acted the way it did gives a chance for people to understand what is happening here in Alger County. Multiple elected officials are involved in this situation one way or another, which could be replaced at the ballot box if the public disagrees with what happens.
In any criminal case, there is the defendant as well. Purnell still has rights as an American citizen that have to be respected. He was getting beat up in the county jail and testified that he acted in self defense. Even if Brock meant to use the fight as an example of what goes wrong when staffing is off, how those comments would hold up in a potential appeal would be a liability for the prosecutor acting on behalf of the people of Michigan.
The sentencing of Corey Purnell will be on Wednesday, February 17, 2021 in the Alger County Courthouse.