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, reports the Associated Press. It was a particularly distressing example of something that happens regularly all over the U.S. 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 to victims of deceased Maryland inmates on behalf of the state. The agency is revising its death-notification procedures after a review prompted by the Trout case. The new message will say there’s been a change in the inmate’s custody status, and to contact the agency for more information. 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 get automated notifications from Appriss, a Kentucky-based contractor. The company 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. A 2013 Justice Department study said public agencies listed inaccurate notifications as the biggest challenge for automated victim notification systems. “You get it wrong, it’s very, very emotionally distressing for people,” said Anne Seymour, a Washington, D.C.-based crime victim advocate who helped develop guidelines and standards for statewide automated victim notification programs in 2006.