U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, citing the "woefully inadequate" handling of twice-convicted murderer Leo Gonzales Wright, ordered the Justice Department yesterday to investigate the way D.C. prison inmates are classified, housed, transferred and furloughed.

Sullivan, reviewing a case that sparked sharp condemnation of District agencies by the D.C. inspector general's office, repeatedly expressed incredulity during a 90-minute hearing in federal court.

"Don't you find that somewhat amazing?" the judge asked Richard Love, assistant D.C. corporation counsel, when told that no records exist of Wright's stay in the D.C. jail from September 1996 to June 1997.

"So, gross negligence but not contempt?" the judge asked Elwood York, general counsel of the D.C. Department of Corrections, when told that the prison warden acted on the basis of limited information.

"He just rubber-stamped the request. He didn't look at any files. He offers a lot of excuses, and not very good excuses," Sullivan said of then-warden Frank Crose's decision to allow Wright to attend his mother's wake in August 1997.

Sullivan's ire flowed from his discovery that Wright, whom he once described as "the most violent, dangerous person I've ever encountered," was not dispatched until recently to federal prison despite Sullivan's judicial order to do so. He set out to learn what went wrong.

Love and York told Sullivan that the District's handling of Wright was not as disturbing as the judge suspected and that training and procedures have improved.

No, they said, Wright had not been sent to federal prison until nearly three years after Sullivan sentenced him to life without parole. But they insisted that Wright was treated like the twice-convicted murderer that he is.

No, they said, Crose had not consulted Sullivan before allowing Wright to attend the viewing. But they pointed out that Wright was secured at all times with what is known to prison guards as a three-piece-suit: handcuffs, leg shackles and a belly chain.

"At all times," Love told Sullivan, "he was handled as a maximum-security inmate."

Among the things Crose did not know, York said, was that Wright would not be the only murderer in the prison van that day. Guards also drove prisoner Edward Williams to the five-minute viewing of Wright's mother, who had been Williams's legal guardian.

Sullivan questioned the decision to assign just two guards to the two prisoners during the ride. York said he did not know how the decision was reached or what department rules required. He volunteered to the judge, "Clearly, we're understaffed."

Wright's career as a prisoner -- he now is at the Leavenworth, Kan., federal penitentiary -- is becoming almost as widely-known as his time as a killer. No case in recent District history has been the subject of as much study, or as much hand-wringing. Wright shot and killed D.C. taxi driver Joseph N. Woodbury in 1976 after Woodbury refused to surrender $19. He was paroled after serving 16 years and six months of a 20-year to 60-year sentence. In December 1995, he robbed and stabbed a 26-year-old human rights lawyer named Bettina Pruckmayr.

The inspector general described Wright in a 47-page report as a violent inmate and drug-using parolee who likely deserved to spend more time in prison and certainly should have been back behind bars before Pruckmayr's death.

Wright's prison file was missing five of 38 disciplinary reports, the inspector general wrote in January. The D.C. Parole Board approved his release against the recommendation of its own analyst. Once free, Wright skipped meetings with his parole officer, tested positive for drug use and was arrested twice. Still, he remained at liberty -- until he killed Pruckmayr.

The inspector general's inquiry was prompted by a lawsuit against the D.C. government filed by Pruckmayr's parents, Gerfried and Gertrude Pruckmayr.

"It's what we've heard from the very beginning," Gerfried Pruckmayr said yesterday. "It's excuses, excuses, excuses."