Prince George's County Judge Richard A. Palumbo, facing criticism for dismissing a protective order against a man who later allegedly set his wife on fire, did not intend to dissolve the order at all, his attorney said yesterday.
William C. Brennan said the District Court judge's dismissal occurred through a "clerical error," although he did not specify whether the mistake was Palumbo's or that of a courtroom clerk.
"We are not making any more inquiries and we are not casting blame on anyone," said Brennan, adding that Palumbo reinstated the protective order yesterday.
On Oct. 10, three weeks after the protective order was dismissed, Roger B. Hargrave allegedly went to the crowded T-Mobile store in Clinton where Yvette Cade worked, doused her with gasoline and set her on fire.
Cade, 31, is hospitalized with third-degree burns covering her face and more than half her upper body. Hargrave, 33, of Temple Hills is charged with attempted first-degree murder and assault.
The apparent mistake in the Cade case was the second recent high-profile error in a Prince George's courtroom.
Last week, Circuit Court Judge Vincent J. Femia said he inadvertently released a murder defendant after failing to look at the man's file before issuing an order to let him out of jail. Police and federal marshals are looking for Pedro H. Guifarro, 25, who is charged with first-degree murder for allegedly being the driver in what prosecutors believe was a gang-related killing in the Adelphi area.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys said that the blunders are generally infrequent and that they often are the result of an overburdened court filled with bulging dockets and overworked personnel.
"We have to be concerned about it and be vigilant so we can avoid these kinds of mistakes," Prince George's State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey said. "We also have to realize that judges are human beings and they make mistakes like the rest of us do."
Defense lawyer Robert C. Bonsib said committing such errors is inevitable in an imperfect system. "It doesn't make the consequences any more palatable," Bonsib said. "But given the volume of cases, there's nothing you can do about it."
Palumbo declined an interview through his attorney, saying Maryland law prohibits him from commenting on a pending case.
Yesterday, Palumbo made a change from his courtroom, altering the docket entry to reflect that Cade's protective order is in effect until July, as was originally intended, Brennan said.
"Judge Palumbo has the utmost sympathy for Ms. Cade and her family," the attorney said.
Cade's family said her entire face is burned, as well as most of her chest and arms. She breathes through a tube and communicates by blinking, they said.
Palumbo originally granted the order for her in July after she said she feared her husband would hurt her. In August, Hargrave wrote a letter to the court saying he wanted the order lifted so he could go to marriage counseling with his wife. The two were separated.
Based on Hargrave's request, Palumbo held a Sept. 19 hearing. Hargrave did not show up, but Cade did.
At the hearing, Cade told the judge that Hargrave was violating the protective order, intimidating her daughter and vandalizing property. She said she wanted "an immediate and absolute divorce," according to a recording of the proceeding.
"I'd like to be 6-foot-5," Palumbo responded. "But that's not what we do here. You have to go to divorce court for that."
"Uh, this case is dismissed," Palumbo said, according to a recording of the hearing. Court documents show the protective order was dissolved.
Palumbo intended only to dismiss Hargrave's motion requesting the order be lifted, not to reverse the stay-away order, Brennan said.
Some court documents reflecting that hearing are contradictory.
In one document, under the heading "Final Protective/Peace Order," both the boxes for "granted" and "dismissed because" are checked. Palumbo wrote a sentence next to the "dismissed because" box, but it is partly illegible. His attorney confirmed that the judge wrote the phrase.
Below that sentence, comments in different handwriting state, "Dism. Prot. Order." It is unclear who wrote those words and whether Palumbo saw them.
Neither Palumbo's attorney nor the court's public information office in Annapolis could decipher Palumbo's handwriting or say who his clerk was that day.
Palumbo was scheduled to hear domestic violence cases last week, but he was pulled off that docket because of media attention surrounding the Cade case. He is scheduled to hear domestic violence cases again in December, said Rita Buettner of the court information office in Annapolis.
Palumbo, who was born in Newark, attended the University of Maryland and the University of Baltimore Law School. He was a county prosecutor from 1969 to 1974.
He then became a defense attorney in private practice for nearly 30 years and served as a state delegate for Prince George's for two decades. As a delegate, he was on the Judiciary Committee, the Joint Audit Committee, the Joint Committee of Investigation and the Appropriations Committee.
He was appointed to the bench in 2001.
Lloyd Johnson, who until recently was a Prince George's prosecutor, said Palumbo is a fair judge who has a tendency to move the docket faster than most. Johnson said it is common for a judge to have 60 cases and just a few hours to dispose of them.
"He's overly preoccupied with moving the docket," Johnson said. "Moving the docket is always a consideration in District Court, but I think that he tends to try to move it a bit more quickly. Sometimes that means you make a mistake. You always want to balance the issue by doing right to all sides."
Defense lawyer David M. Simpson called Palumbo a good District Court judge.
"It's important that a good District Court judge not only has good legal qualifications but good everyday practical experience," Simpson said. "He has that."