Killer's probation officer is defended

The Charlotte ObserverJuly 16, 2009 

The probation officer who supervised a criminal who went on a killing spree had a heavy caseload and should not be blamed for failing to keep him locked up, correction officials said Wednesday.

Lincoln County probation officer Angela Merrill, who specializes in overseeing sex offenders, had been handling more than 100 cases, including the suspected serial killer Patrick Burris. She has 77 of her own cases and another 29 cases because of two vacancies in the office.

"That's not ideal," said Keith Acree, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Correction. "We'd like the caseload to be lower. But it's the reality there."

Merrill had received an arrest warrant for Burris from the N.C. Parole Commission more than six hours before Burris, a 41-year-old career criminal, was released from the Lincoln County jail on June 12. But she did not take immediate steps to make sure he remained behind bars.

Acree said Wednesday that the 30-year-old probation officer met with 28 offenders under her supervision on the day Burris was arrested, jailed and then released. "That's about one appointment every 15 minutes," Acree said.

Merrill had no evidence to suspect Burris would turn violent, correction officials said.

"If she had thought this guy was a danger, she would have made it a priority and dealt with it immediately," Acree said. "Based on what she knew, this was a guy who was ignoring curfew and driving without a license."

Two weeks after his release, Burris began terrorizing Cherokee County, S.C., with a killing spree that took the lives of a peach farmer, two teachers and a store owner and his 15-year-old daughter. Burris was shot to death by Gaston County police July 6 as they tried to arrest him near Dallas.

North Carolina's probation system has struggled to keep up with growing caseloads. In March, Gov. Bev Perdue said she would ask the legislature to spend $24.2 million over the next two years to hire 175 probation officers and trainers and to give $2,200 raises to officers.

The governor's announcement followed stories in The News & Observer detailing overloaded officers, botched supervision, 13,000 missing offenders and 580 probationers who killed while under state supervision.

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