About 100 prisoners who already had their day in court got another one by mistake in D.C. Superior Court yesterday while 100 other prisoners who had been waiting for their own appointment with the judge spent most of the day in their jail cells.
The courthouse mix-up, according to judges, defense lawyers and prosecutors who had to cool their heels waiting for misplaced prisoners to arrive, occurred because corrections officials were given the wrong list of prisoners to be transferred from jail to court. Instead of calling up Monday's prisoners, the officials yesterday transported prisoners from last Friday's calendar.
"There was a little problem here, as you might have heard," said Judge Fred B. Ugast, head of the criminal division, who at noon was still waiting for his missing prisoners to arrive.
"You can't get them in when you want them in, and you can't get them out when you want them out," said one prosecutor who spent most of the morning waiting for three missing defendants to begin a drug trial.
The "problem," as it was characterized by more charitable critics, left nearly 100 prisoners with court dates stranded in jail. A number of frustrated felony judges canceled their morning calendars, marshals scrambled to make a "massive switch" of the misplaced prisoners, and lawyers and police officers groused about having to wait for hours.
The genesis for the mix-up -- described by most as a first -- apparently was Friday when a messenger from the Department of Corrections picked up Friday's list instead of the list of prisoners scheduled to appear in court yesterday.
By the time anyone noticed that they were seeing the same faces they had seen Friday, most of the prisoners already were in the courthouse cell block and the phones were ringing from judges' chambers. Of the 99 prisoners sent to the courthouse yesterday, all but seven were wrongly called, said a source in the felony clerk's office.
"My judge left the bench saying she was going to call Mr. Palmer [the head of the Department of Corrections] and his lawyer," said one prosecutor scheduled to start a trial yesterday morning.
A number of felony judges, frustrated by no-shows, canceled their morning hearings or juggled their schedules with other cases while waiting for the prisoners. Many postponed cases.
"We're just sitting around here waiting," said one judge. "We don't know what else to do."
No one seemed to be able to explain officially how the mix-up occurred, but there was no shortage of possible explanations or finger-pointing as word of the large-scale blunder traveled through the building faster than its massive escalator.
Early in the morning, many of those affected by the delays were accusing the troubled Department of Corrections of yet another slip-up. But it eventually was determined that the blame belonged to the felony clerk's office.
The clerk's office "would have you believe the Department of Corrections screwed up," said one source. "But it was the clerk's office. They gave the Department of Corrections runner the wrong list."
"I haven't been able to pinpoint what happened," explained Frederick Beane, chief deputy clerk of the criminal division, where the prisoner list is picked up from a box. "It's just one of those things that fell through the cracks."
"It's easy to explain what happened," said Larry Polansky, the executive director of the court. "It's why it happened that's not so easy."
Around 8 a.m., as marshals and clerks began to notice that the day's scheduled defendants had not arrived on the prisoner buses, arrangements were made to begin transferring Friday's prisoners back to the jail and to retrieve those due in court yesterday. By the end of the day, most of the scheduled prisoners had made their court appearances or had had their cases postponed, according to U.S. Marshal Herb Rutherford III.
"You're talking about a lot of extra runs," said an unhappy Rutherford. "The job is difficult enough as it is . . . . This backs up an already overburdened system . . . . But it is almost 5, and we've lived through it."
Throughout the day marshals could be heard grumbling about the extra work. More than a few rolled their eyes when asked about the delays, which court officials said would be costly because of the time wasted. When asked why no one on the buses noticed that they were transporting essentially the same group they last saw Friday, one marshal said, "Many probably did, but you have to follow what's on the court's 'come-up' list."
Others, however, treated the mix-up as an unexpected time to relax. One lawyer balanced a lunch tray in the courtroom cafeteria and said that because the three defendants he was set to represent had not yet appeared, he was eating lunch at the courthouse for the first time in weeks.
But it was a prosecutor, waiting until 4 p.m. for a missing prisoner, who seemed to have the most sanguine perspective about the mix-up: "It's like no real big deal, because they're not going anywhere."