D.C. police, prosecutors disagree on handling of shooting suspect

By Clarence Williams and Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 2, 2010

The D.C. police chief and the U.S. attorney responded publicly Thursday to questions about why a suspect in a mass shooting in the city had not been arrested days earlier in a separate killing, with both officials saying that the man remained free because of a good-faith disagreement between detectives and prosecutors over the strength of their evidence.

The suspect, Orlando Carter, 20, was arrested Tuesday night, shortly after he and three other assailants allegedly killed four people and wounded five others in a drive-by shooting in the District's Washington Highlands neighborhood. Days before the attack, police had asked the U.S. attorney's office to obtain a warrant for Carter's arrest in a March 22 homicide, but prosecutors declined to present the request to a judge.

Law enforcement officials said that such disagreements are common and that prosecutors often tell detectives that they need more evidence before making arrests.

"We can only approve arrest warrants when sufficient probable cause has been established . . . after a thorough review of the evidence," U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. said in a statement Thursday.

Although prosecutors, like detectives, were eager to take Carter off the streets last week, they did not think that the evidence gathered by police at that point was solid enough to pass muster with a judge, authorities said.

The decision not to seek the warrant -- meaning that Carter was free Tuesday when the bloodbath occurred -- rankled homicide detectives. They complained privately to reporters after the drive-by shootings that Machen's office had been too cautious. They said police, under pressure to close cases, do not get the support they need in instances such as this.

Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier noted the dissatisfaction Thursday in an appearance on NewsChannel 8's "NewsTalk" program. "Our officers and detectives that speak out -- I understand why," she said.

Describing detectives as "very emotional" after the drive-by shooting, Lanier said, "Our opinion was that there was probable cause" to support an application for an arrest warrant for Carter before the attack. But she acknowledged that "difference of opinion is common" between detectives eager to lock up suspects and prosecutors who must prove the cases in court.

An official in Machen's office said prosecutors thought that some media reports unfairly suggested that they had obstructed police, citing a Washington Examiner headline that said the arrest had been "blocked."

Machen said that when prosecutors and detectives cannot agree, "we have extensive discussions with [police] supervisors, sometimes at the highest levels, all in an effort to make sure we arrive at the correct decision."

Police began focusing on Carter after a March 22 slaying in which two assailants, one with a handgun, the other with an AK-47-style assault rifle, opened fire outside a Southeast Washington apartment building, killing Jordan Howe, 20.

Carter's brother, Sanquan Carter, 19, was charged in Howe's slaying a day after it occurred. Detectives said they suspected that Orlando Carter had been the gunman with the assault rifle.

After being turned down for an arrest warrant, police last week obtained a warrant to search the apartment where they thought Orlando Carter was staying, authorities said. They said detectives were looking for the rifle, a key piece of evidence that they hoped would support a renewed request for an arrest warrant. But they did not find the weapon in that search.

The assault rifle did not turn up until Tuesday night, during a police chase, when someone tossed the weapon out a window of the minivan that had been used in the drive-by shooting, according to police.

Orlando Carter's alleged involvement in the drive-by attack, the recovery of the rifle, and the connection of the weapon to both Tuesday's mass shooting and the March 22 killing "put us over the hump" in terms of linking Carter to Howe's slaying, said a law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigations are continuing.

Besides being charged in the drive-by shooting, Carter was charged Wednesday with murder in Howe's death.

Staff writer Keith L. Alexander contributed to this report.

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