D.C. police and prosecutors were still scratching their heads yesterday, trying to figure out how a man who eluded police for 17 months could then be promptly released by a judge who was never told the unusual circumstances surrounding the case.
The man, William David Ferguson, 31, who was listed as one of the city's 10 most wanted suspects for the last six months, and had escaped arrest several times since he was charged with the February 1979 holdup of a Northeast Safeway store, was arrested by police and promptly released on Wednesday by Superior Court Judge John B. Hess.
Police and prosecutors alike pointed their collective fingers away from themselves to avoid responsibility for the communication breakdown.
Capt. Ronald Crytzer, the commander of the D.C. police robbery branch, said. "This branch fulfilled all obligations to the court in presenting the prisoner [Ferguson] to the court for prosecution."
However, prosecutors refused to confirm whether they had, in fact, been told by police of the details surrounding Ferguson's case and that possibly he should not be released pending his next court date on Aug. 26 because of the chance he might not appear.
Hess, when he found out the details of Ferguson's case after he had released him, said that if he been aware of the information he would never have freed him into the custody of an organiation outside the court that is responsible for defendant's appearance at court proceedings.
Meanwhile, at Stepping Stones, the organization that undertook third-party custody of Ferguson, several officials said that he had not checked in for his first scheduled meeting with a counselor. However, the officials said that Ferguson apparently is serving National Guard duty somewhere in Virginia through the weekend and is expected to show up on Monday.
In the District, defendants usually are released by judges on personal bond or into third-party custodial arrangements unless there is a reason to believe the individual might not appear for his next court appearance.
"If I had known [Ferguson] had been eluding police for 17 months, I can assure you that it is very unlikely he would have been released." Hess said.
Ferguson's unusual release was the talk in Superior Court corridors yesterday, to the extent that some court officials jokingly offered to wager on whether Ferguson would show for his Aug. 26 court date.
Marc B. Tucker, the prosecutor in Ferguson's case, was absolved by his superiors of any blame in the information problem since he had never been given the details about the suspect. The slip-up, the U.S. attorney's office said, occurred before the case got into court.
The case was brought to court Wednesday by D.C. police officer Gary Queen for "papering," a process by which police transmit to prosecutors relevant information on the case and the case is then turned over to them.
"We just arrest them and send them over to the courts," said one police officer. Prosecutors will not identify who "papered" the case for their office, but sources said that it was not at all clear that this assistant U.S. attorney had been told of the information either.
"The reason the information [about Ferguson eluding the police for so long] was so crucial to the case was its relevance to the issue of flight -- which is the only basis on which the judge could have issued a bond or held Ferguson," said one courthouse observer.
"In such cases as this where the charge is armed robbery, with no prior serious conviction, the chances of getting someone held are absolutely minimal. In a case like this, bond simply would not have been set," without the judge knowing that Ferguson had eluded police.
Ferguson has been charged with armed robbery and his only prior convictions were for two misdemeanor charges in 1975.
"It is apparent to us, based on a preliminary investigation, that there was a breakdown in communications," said Terry H. Russell, deputy director of the U.S. attorney's Superior Court office. "We are continuing to look into the matter to discover more details."