D.C. Superior Court prosecutors dropped an assault-on-a-policeman charge against a Justice Department attorney because they believed the lawyer's career and reputation might be damaged, according to statements by D.C. police and city lawyers.
Papers filed in a lawsuit growing out of the three-year-old case disclose a sharp and unusual antagonism between police and prosecutors who customarily work closely together.
Police contend the prosecutors in the case were protecting "one of their own" -- a fellow government attorney. Prosecutors deny this and say the police simply had a weak case against the man, John H. Earle, a 28-year veteran trial attorney in the Justice Department's antitrust division.
Earle was arrested in September 1977 after he allegedly pointed a pistol at a police officer who was responding to a complaint that Earle had threatened neighborhood youths with a gun. The officer, Willis Bailey Jr., took the weapon on away from Earle, according to police, and Earle was taken into custody. He was released later.
However, as prosecutors in the U.S. attorney's office filed the charge against Earle at D.C. Superior Court the following day, Assistant U.S. Attorney William E. Bucknam "expressed reluctance to paper [process] the charges for fear of jeopardizing [Earle's] career," according to court papers filed by the D.C. corporation counsel's office in connection with the suit stemming from the incident.
"I wouldn't want to [process] this case if it was not for the facts, because of the man's career and time he has worked," Bailey says he was told by Bucknam.
The U.S. attorney's office did in fact initially process the charge but later dropped it before a preliminary hearing was scheduled before a judge. Bucknam denies the action was "based on the gentleman's employment status."
The dismissal of the charge against Earle so outraged Bailey's supervisors that high level police officials in the 4th District where the incident occurred ordered two detectives to completely reinvestigate the case, reinterview witnesses and review the basis for Bailey's charge against Earle.
"I was upset," said Deputy Chief Charles M. Troublefield, commander of the 4th District, who said the new investigation "came out the same.I see no reason to question the veracity of the officer's version of what happened."
After the U.S. attorney's office dropped the charge against him, Earle filed a $4 million lawsuit against Officer Bailey and the police department, alleging false arrest and false imprisonment.
Earle aslo claimed that the "continuous and extraordinary efforts" by police to explore the case evidenced malicious prosecution, an apparent reference to Deputy Chief Troublefield's reinvestigation of the case.
Troublefield disagrees. "That guy has a lot of nerve filing a lawsuit" against the police department, he said in an interview.
The incident involving Earle occurred the night of Sept. 19, 1977. Officer Bailey responded to a complaint that Earle, who lived in the 1700 block of Irving Street NW, had threatened several neighborhood youths with a gun after the youths' football had gone onto his property.
Bailey and another officer, Richard Gaskins, knocked on Earle's front door, announcing their presence, according to police statements. Earle appeared at the door holding a gun in the direction of the officers, Bailey contends.
Bailey kicked the door open, grabbed the gun and arrested Earle, charging him with assault on a police officer.
The next day, according to Bailey, he went to the U.S. attorney's office to begin processing the charge.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Bucknam asked Bailey if Earle was an attorney, according to Bailey. "I said, 'Yes, he works for the Justice Department," Bailey says he told Bucknam. Bucknam then picked up a directory and located Earle's name, according to Bailey's version of the incident. Then Bucknam told Bailey that he did not want to process the charges because of Earle's "career and time he has worked," Bailey says.
According to a court source, the decision to drop the charges against Earle came at the highest levels of the U.S. attorney's office. However, government prosecutors refused to make ther reason public when asked by the D.C. corporation counsel's office, which is defending the police department against Earle's suit.
There is also a racial element in the case. Assistant Corporation Counsel Frank W. Stearns wrote to the U.S. attorney's office that his "investigation of this case has brought fourth indications that the criminal charges against Mr. Earle were terminated because of concern that his career would be jeopardized, and that he would be convicted not on the evidence, but soley because he was white and the complainant and some of the witnessess were black."
However, then-U.S. Attorney Earl J. Silbert asserted prosecutorial "privilege" and refused to let Bucknam testify on the matter. The suit against the police department will be heard soon in D.C. Superior Court.
Henry F. Greene, the assistant U.S. attorney in charge of Superior Court operations, issued the following statement: "Not only as a matter of policy would this officer never take into consideration a defendant's employment with the Department of Justice in determining whether to bring charges in a criminal case, but we have carefully reviewed our files in this case and are entirely satisfied that Mr. Earle's association with the Department of Justice had absolutely nothing to do with the prosecutor's decision reached in this case."
Earle, who left the Justice Deparment several months after the incident, could not be reached for comment this week. In papers filed in his court suit, however, Earle acknowledges that he carried a gun to the door of his house on the night of the alleged assault but said he had done so for his own protection, unaware that police were at the door.