Janice Lancaster took every legal step possible to protect herself from her abusive husband. She sought counseling, went to court to get a protective order, called the police when he battered her. Still, she was so afraid he would kill her that she picked out the dress she wanted to be buried in.

On Monday morning, her husband, Steve, carried out his threats, shooting her to death in front of their daughter, then killing himself, as a warrant for his arrest lay unprocessed in the Charles County District Court's office.

Yesterday, as her friends and family grieved, law enforcement officials and judges were scrambling--and at times, pointing fingers--to find out why a warrant for James Steven Lancaster's arrest that was requested 13 days before the slaying was never processed.

"This is our worst nightmare come true," said State's Attorney Leonard C. Collins Jr.

Maryland lawmakers also questioned the delay and accused the Charles County courts of not taking Janice Lancaster's plight seriously.

"There is no excuse for this. . . . If somebody has received a death threat . . . they ought to move right away," said Sen. Nancy Jacobs (R-Harford).

Martha F. Rasin, chief judge of Maryland's District Court, said yesterday that she had concluded that, though it was "a horrible situation," the courts acted properly.

Rasin said it was "normal" for the process to take nine days from the motion's filing until a judge signs the paper, saying that it was necessary to give the defense time to respond to the motion calling for the arrest.

"It appears to the casual reader that it was just sitting around for nine days, but that was the normal process," she said. "There was absolutely no delay there beyond what should have occurred. Now, should somebody have pushed it through because somebody was in danger? Perhaps so."

Collins, however, said that it usually takes only "a day or two" for bench warrants to be approved by a District Court judge.

"We took it seriously," Collins said. "The District Court sat on it."

Advocates for domestic violence victims said the case shows how vulnerable the victims can be even if they follow the court system.

"It's awful, but she did the right things," said Annette Gilbert-Jackson, director of the Center for Abused Persons in Waldorf. "She did everything she could do, but he still got hold of a gun."

By the time Steve Lancaster walked into the kitchen of his wife's home, he had threatened repeatedly to kill her and was in violation of two separate court orders barring contact with her--a stay-away order issued in September after he was charged with assaulting her and a civil protective order she had obtained while the request for an arrest warrant languished in the court clerk's office.

Other court documents detail the violent dissolution of the Lancasters' marriage. And friends and relatives recalled yesterday how they had tried to take her in during recent tempestuous months.

Family friend Kim Clements, 34, of Faulkner, said that Janice, 34, and Steve--a 36-year-old waterman--fell in love when both were students at La Plata High School and married in 1987.

The relationship took a sour turn in the fall of 1998, according to Clements.

"It was violent at times," Clements said. Janice Lancaster first sought an ex parte protective order against her husband in February but dropped it a week later after the couple tried to reconcile. She drew up a will the same month, designating which of her precious pieces of gold jewelry and other treasures would go to her 12-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter.

"She was scared he was going to hurt her," said friend Tracy Dawson, 35, who helped draw up the will. "She said, 'I want to be prepared if something happens.' "

In May, the Lancasters scuffled again, and Steve Lancaster was charged with assault. He pleaded guilty and was given 18 months' probation.

By summer, Janice Lancaster had taken to sleeping in the toolshed. She set up a makeshift bed--a mattress, sheets--amid the storage boxes. In August, she filed for divorce, alleging that her husband had had an affair.

On Dec. 20, the couple again argued violently, also at her home. In court papers, Janice Lancaster said her husband shoved her and screamed, "Get the [expletive] out before you won't make it out."

Janice Lancaster contacted the state's attorney's office the same day, and an assistant state's attorney, also on the same day, asked the court for a bench warrant for Steve Lancaster's arrest on charges that he was "harassing" his wife.

The request did not reach Judge Gary S. Gasparovic until Dec. 29, and he signed it immediately. The warrant was not processed by the clerk's office before it closed for the long holiday weekend.

Janice Lancaster--and her husband--will be remembered at a joint service Friday at St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Port Tobacco.

Janice Lancaster will have a say in the funeral, Clements said.

One day last summer, Clements went to see her while she was living in her shed. Lancaster showed Clements a dress. It was light-colored and long, with a note pinned to the lapel.

"She showed me the dress she had picked out to be buried in," Clements said, her voice choking. "It had a note on it that said exactly how she wanted to be buried. She said, 'Make sure I have shoes on, because my feet are always cold.' "

CAPTION: Steve and Janice Lancaster on their 10th wedding anniversary, in 1997.