About 150 Come Forward to Face Court at Church In Washington
People Sought on Warrants Surrender Under Program

By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 2, 2007

Kevin Gilchrist was ticketed a year ago because a passenger in his car was not wearing a seatbelt, and when the case came to trial, he didn't show up.

A warrant was issued for his arrest -- something that stopped him from renewing his license and that weighed heavily on his mind. Yesterday, with his sister and brother-in-law at his side, Gilchrist turned himself in. After getting a new hearing date, he left for home.

"I just want to get it over and done with," he said.

By late afternoon yesterday, nearly 150 fugitives -- most with minor, or at least nonviolent, charges -- had turned themselves in as part of a three-day event in the District known as Fugitive Safe Surrender. It continues from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and tomorrow at Bible Way Church, at New Jersey and New York avenues NW, to pare down almost 30,000 outstanding warrants in the District.

Most of the fugitives showed up at the church, although some also turned themselves in at D.C. Superior Court. One person who turned himself in yesterday on assault and battery charges was taken into custody.

The program does not offer amnesty but gives people a chance to resolve cases amid promises from authorities of "favorable consideration." The effort is part of a national program that has resulted in more than 5,000 people with outstanding warrants coming forward in five other cities. Most have shown up with family members, and the vast majority said they might have kept running if not for the non-courthouse setting.

"They talk about the safety and sanctity of the church," said Kent State University professor Daniel Flannery, who has surveyed participants in all six cities.

Participants yesterday expressed similar feelings as they arrived at Bible Way Church. They were greeted at the front door by volunteers, many of them members of the church, who guided them toward metal detectors set up inside.

Dozens and dozens of law enforcement officers were present, although most of them were in the background, many out of sight of participants. Church ladies and pastors chatted with the arrivals, offering them something to eat or drink.

Soon, however, participants were ushered into the basement, where the wheels of justice were in full motion. People were outfitted with wristbands, introduced to defense attorneys and moved to makeshift courtrooms, where judges heard their cases.

In one of them, Rufus G. King III, chief judge of D.C. Superior Court, presided. Activity swirled all around: People hustled in and out, reporters requested interviews. Noise from adjacent "courts" crept over walls that didn't reach the ceiling. The commotion became so overwhelming at one point that King signaled to an aide, who promptly gestured for quiet in the nearby hallway.

Order restored for the moment, King whipped through cases, dismissing some, setting new court dates for others. As he dismissed one marijuana possession case, King told the man: "We all know that marijuana isn't going to grow hair on your palms, but it will get you locked up. You got off of this case, but don't get another one."

The man nodded and left, smiling.

Willie C. Jones, who had failed to appear in court earlier on a charge of heroin distribution, was among those at Bible Way. "I didn't feel comfortable going to the courthouse," the 47-year-old District resident said.

Ronald Armstead, an elder at Bible Way, said that there's little to be gained if people come to the church to get adjudicated and leave. Parents have to be more involved with their children, he said. Adults in government and the church, he said, have to continually find ways to connect with people before they make bad choices. "We dropped the ball somewhere," he said. "I think we could have done more."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company