Apparent clerical error sends man to violent-offender prison
John Fortunato drove a gray Mustang the night three teenagers walked up to the car to buy marijuana, but instead faced a shotgun and a demand for their money.
Fortunato, 21 at the time, and his 16-year-old buddy, who was holding the gun, made off with $20 from the stick-up.
Fortunato didn't point the shotgun, but the incident earned him a 15-year prison sentence. And a paperwork mistake placed him in a prison with some of South Carolina's most hardened criminals.
Now, his mother worries about her son making it through his sentence alive.
Summerville police stopped Fortunato shortly after the robbery on Dec. 22, 2010. They arrested him and his 16-year-old friend on charges of armed robbery and weapon and drug violations.
Fortunato, now 23, pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of strong-arm robbery in July, and a Dorchester County judge handed down the 15-year sentence. But somewhere along the way, an apparent clerical error listed Fortunato on the original, more serious charge of armed robbery.
That landed him in a maximum-security prison, labeled him a violent offender and stripped him of any chance of parole.
His mother, Ladson resident Angie Holland, first noticed the mistake when she looked up her son on the S.C. Department of Corrections website about a month after he began his prison term.
She is worried that her son will try to harm himself while serving time in Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville.
"I've been trying since August to get this changed," Holland said. "There's nothing I can do about it, but I don't want to lose my son."
The prosecutor in the case, Russell Hilton, said Wednesday that his staff has been working with corrections officials to straighten out the mistake, which he described as "probably a clerical error.
"Obviously, he can't serve more of a sentence than what he's sentenced to," Hilton said.
Corrections officials said they label Fortunato a member of their "crisis intervention" program, meaning Fortunato receives counseling and remains under a camera's watch.
"He called me and he broke down," Holland said.
Clark Newsom, spokesman for the S.C. Department of Corrections, said Fortunato could be eligible to transfer out of Lee, a level-3 prison housing some of South Carolina's most violent criminals, to a level-2 prison with inmates convicted of lesser crimes.
Newsom said that change first requires officials in Dorchester County to make the correction to Fortunato's sentencing report.
"Technically, we can't do anything until it's relayed to us," Newsom said.
Fortunato's criminal history includes a 2008 conviction for malicious injury to personal property and a probation violation the next year, state records show.
Holland keeps a box of letters from her son, all neatly folded and returned to their envelopes with return addresses from jails and prisons. She makes the trip to Bishopville to see him every few months, or as often as she can afford it.
To Holland's knowledge, the 16-year-old boy who pointed the gun that night in 2010 should finish his sentence with the Department of Juvenile Justice in less than a year.
Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594 or on Twitter at @allysonjbird.