On July 7, 1982, a D.C. Superior Court grand jury indicted a 41-year-old Northwest Washington man on charges of raping his 14-year-old daughter. But for almost two years after the indictment was returned, the man continued to live with his family and never was arrested or brought to trial.
The reason: A court clerk forgot to punch the defendant's name into a computer, and police never knew that they were supposed to be looking for the man.
Court officials yesterday confirmed that the defendant, who could have been sentenced to life in prison had he been convicted on the charges, was allowed to remain free because of a clerical error.
But an official said that no apparent harm resulted from the 19-month delay, and added: "As it turned out, it the delay was probably beneficial."
The man, who was indicted on charges of rape, carnal knowledge and taking indecent liberties with a minor, subsequently entered a rehabilitation program for drug abuse. His attorney, Grandison Hill, said that the family has received counseling. And the defendant now works for the private drug rehabilitation program, pending sentencing in December on the indecent liberties charge, for which he could be sentenced to up to 10 years.
According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen E. Voelker, prosecutors discovered in February that police never received notice that Chief Judge H. Carl Moultrie had issued a bench warrant for the man's arrest only a few days after the grand jury returned its indictment.
Moultrie issued the bench warrant when deputy U.S. marshals, armed with a judicial summons, reported that the defendant had moved -- also an apparent error.
In most cases, copies of bench warrants are sent from the courtroom to the court's warrant office, where clerks type the notice directly into the police computer system. Police officers then are dispatched to execute the warrants and bring defendants to trial. When defendants cannot be found, the warrants are placed in a rotating file so that police keep trying.
In this case, officials said, a clerk stamped in the defendant's case file that the warrant had been typed into the computer when, in fact, it had not. In the U.S. attorney's office, open bench warrant cases -- more than 1,000 at any given time -- are filed away until defendants are apprehended. Prosecutors would have been unaware that any mistake had occurred, an official said.
When the error was discovered in February, police found the man at his home and arrested him. A month later he pleaded guilty to the indecent liberties charge, and the government agreed to drop the other two charges.
Prosecutors since have told Moultrie that they will not oppose a sentence of probation for the man.
"There was no sweat, no stink about the whole thing," said attorney Hill. "The marriage has managed to stay intact and the family relationships are healed. And it's all been precipitated by this man's efforts to clean up his act."