How The Bail Bond System Failed Tierne Ewing

Sep 6, 2016

This undated driver's license photo provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation shows Tierne Ewing of West Finley Township, Pa.
Credit PennDOT / AP, file

Last week, 47- year-old Kevin Ewing kidnapped his estranged wife at gunpoint. At the time, Ewing was under home confinement on charges he held 48-year-old Tierne Ewing captive and assaulted her for nearly two weeks in June and July.

Following Tierne Ewing’s abduction on Aug. 30, Washington County and state law enforcement officials fanned out around Findley Township to search for them. The search ended that night when Kevin Ewing shot Tierne and himself as state troopers approached a barn where he had taken her.

Tierne Ewing's parents have questioned the way authorities handled charges against Kevin Ewing in the earlier case. Kevin Ewing had a history of domestic abuse that began long before the assault charges from earlier in the summer. After that incident, a judge set bail and Ewing was able to post $100,000 bond on July 11.

When she learned he had made bond, Washington County Assistant District Attorney Kristin Clingerman asked a judge to put him back in jail and have his bond increased, citing the danger to his wife and to the community at large.

The judge denied that request, and the case begs the questions – why was Kevin Ewing allowed to leave jail, and how did the judge set bond?

In Pennsylvania, a judge must set bond or set a defendant free on their own recognizance. Holding a defendant until trial is not an option unless he or she is charged with a homicide, or in rare instances, a defendant is deemed too dangerous for society, said Clingerman.

“It’s not like ‘OK, you commit this kind of crime you get a $5,000 bond.' There’s not set rules like that,” said Clingerman. “It’s left to the discretion of the court to consider all the factors and make a determination of what the court thinks is appropriate in that case.”

When a judge sets bond, Clingerman said there are a number of factors he or she should consider, but in the end it's subjective.

“And it has to be discretionary, because you know, every case is different," Clingerman said. "You can’t lump them all in the same.”

Raising the bond was Clingerman’s primary tool for keeping everyone safe, and she said she was motivated by the deeply violent nature of his prior assault of Tierne Ewing, paired with an extensive history of domestic violence and mental health issues.

“My whole goal was to keep Tierne Ewing safe – and society safe because domestic violence is so dangerous. There are often people caught in the crossfire.”

And that's one of the major problems with setting bond at the state level, said University of Pittsburgh law professor and 'Criminal Injustice' podcast host David Harris.

“If you come across a person who is obviously dangerous and can do real harm, the only thing you can do is set a bond that you think they can’t make,” Harris said. “The judges don’t have a way to keep somebody in just because they’re dangerous. The federal system has that – it’s preventative detention.”

Harris said there’s no way for a judge to determine what a defendant can and cannot afford.

“It’s all kind of a guessing game, a predicting game based on very little information,” he said. “It’s an old system that has many flaws.”

Harris said there are cases where judges set bond at purposefully prohibitive level to ensure the defendant will stay incarcerated, but that didn’t appear to be what happened in the Ewing case.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.