A Gunman Released

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

D'ANGELO THOMAS, 18, was arrested in the early hours of Oct. 11 with three other men after D.C. police found five guns in the car they were riding in. Mr. Thomas had a previous gun conviction, but when he appeared the next day before a magistrate in D.C. superior court, the case was dismissed. Two weeks later, Mr. Thomas was arrested again, this time on a murder charge.

The circumstances of the release -- a police oversight compounded by a preoccupied U.S. attorney's office and an impatient judge -- provide a glimpse into the sometimes imperfect way justice is administered in the District of Columbia and how that is translated to city streets. Murder is a hard crime to prevent, and no one can say with certainty if the killing of 30-year-old Delonte Kent -- alleged to have been shot dead by Mr. Thomas -- could have been averted. Anyone familiar, though, with the events that took place inside D.C. Court Room 201 that Friday morning can only conclude that they should have unfolded differently.

Save for a mention by WRC-TV (Channel 4) police reporter Pat Collins, little has been said about the murder of Mr. Kent or the circumstances leading up to it. Mr. Kent was fairly typical of those who are killed in the District -- he was a young, African American male who had a string of arrests and convictions. In other words, he was someone easy to overlook.

The backdrop to his death begins on Oct. 11, when officers from the First District became suspicious of a Buick LeSabre with tinted windows. Police pulled the car over and found the loaded guns. Mr. Thomas, Anthony Smith, Torrey Robinson and Anthony Gray were arrested on charges of carrying pistols without a license. They appeared later that day before a judge, who discovered that Mr. Thomas's name was missing from the narrative in the criminal complaint showing probable cause. His name appeared only as a caption of the case, U.S. v. D'Angelo Thomas. The judge held the defendants without bond until a hearing the next morning, noting that the oversight could be corrected at that time. Explicit orders were given for everyone to be there at 9 a.m.

Magistrate Judge J. Dennis Doyle was presiding when the case was called sometime between 9:24 and 9:35 a.m. Neither the case jacket nor an arresting officer were present. Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Little asked that the case be passed over so the officer and paperwork could be located. Defense attorneys objected and moved for dismissal, arguing that the government wasn't ready. The judge agreed. Sometime between 9:40 and 9:45 a.m., the officer -- who was in the courthouse fixing the paperwork -- appeared in the courtroom, only to be told the case had been dismissed. Police were furious; they believed the men to be a menace. The U.S. attorney's office quickly moved to bring new charges. On Oct. 19, a grand jury returned multiple-count indictments against the four defendants and arrest warrants were issued. Before Mr. Thomas was found, Mr. Kent was killed. Mr. Thomas was then charged with his murder.

Mr. Doyle is barred by the judicial code of conduct from discussing the case. Court officials said that releasing someone who subsequently kills another is "every judge's worst nightmare" -- and that it's always easy to condemn in hindsight. Certainly, one can understand the annoyance of a judge who is dealing with a crammed court calendar and is slowed by prosecutors who are unprepared or lawyers who are busy with other clients. None of that, though, can excuse a decision that at its most elemental lost sight of what's really at stake. Four young men -- two with prior gun offenses -- are picked up with loaded guns, and the court can't spare five minutes to see if letting them go is really in the interest of public safety?

Last year there was an increase in homicides in the District -- 181 people were killed -- and generally it's the police who get put on the griddle. But no matter how well police do their jobs, as officers Thomas Zurowski, Ty Truong, Anthony Smith and Christopher Beyer did on Oct. 11, they are part of a system where the role of prosecutors and the judgment of judges come into play. This case is said to have resulted in some soul-searching at the court. No one, though, could tell us if anyone got in touch with the family of Delonte Kent to report what happened. Or to say they are sorry.

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