Prince George's County's top District Court judge yesterday disputed the assertion that a clerical error caused a protective order to be dropped against the man who allegedly set his wife on fire last week.
The judge who dismissed the protective order, Richard A. Palumbo, contended this week through his attorney that it was not his intention to rescind the order against Roger B. Hargrave but that it was dissolved through a clerical mistake.
Chief Administrative Judge Thurman H. Rhodes disagreed, saying he believes Palumbo clearly dismissed the protective order during a Sept. 19 hearing.
"The clerk recorded what the judge did on the record," Rhodes said yesterday. "The clerk's office filed the entry correctly in terms of the judge's actions."
Rhodes oversees the administration of the District Court. Its clerks report to Administrative Clerk Mary Jones Abrams, who reports to him.
It is highly unusual for a judge to publicly criticize or question any statements made by a fellow judge sitting on the bench. Rhodes has no authority to sanction another judge.
On Oct. 10, three weeks after the protective order was dismissed, Hargrave allegedly went to the T-Mobile store in Clinton where Yvette Cade works, 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. She is breathing through a tube and blinking her eyes to communicate.
Hargrave, 33, of Temple Hills, is charged with attempted first-degree murder and assault. He is in jail on no-bond status.
Palumbo declined to comment yesterday, as did his attorney, William C. Brennan.
Earlier this week, Brennan said the dismissal of the protective order occurred through a clerical error, although he did not specify whether the mistake was Palumbo's or that of a courtroom clerk.
"That's not my position," Rhodes said yesterday. He declined to release the name of the clerk in the courtroom that day.
Ben C. Clyburn, chief judge for the District Court of Maryland, said yesterday that he would not comment on the disagreement between the judges.
Documents in the Cade case file are contradictory. In one document, under the heading "Final Protective/Peace Order," the boxes for "granted" and "dismissed because" are both checked. Under that section, someone wrote, "Dism. Prot. Order."
On Monday, Palumbo altered his docket entry to reflect that Cade's protective order is in effect until July, Brennan said.
This case has renewed a debate about the effectiveness of protective orders and whether they give a person who might be in danger a false sense of security.
The directives are also called stay-away orders, because the judge often forbids the respondent from contact with the petitioner, which includes going to the person's home, job or school. A respondent who violates the order can be found in contempt, arrested and possibly fined or jailed.
Kirk Callan Smith, a D.C. lawyer who handles domestic violence cases, said the orders are effective only if they are enforced.
At the Sept. 19 hearing, Cade told Palumbo: "Your honor, he's violating the peace order. He's contacting my family. He's still contacting me. He's intimidating my daughter, and he's vandalizing other people's property."
The judge responded to those comments by telling her the case was dismissed and she should get a lawyer.
Smith said protective orders can have an empowering effect on the people seeking them.
"On a human level, what you're dealing with is power," Smith said.
"The person moving for the order is seeking protection, and it gives her encouragement. It also gives a strong message to the other party that 'you're not above the law,' " Smith said.
But others, such as Prince George's Circuit Court Judge Vincent J. Femia, call the orders a "Band-Aid."
Femia has had his own problems recently.
Last week, he acknowledged that he had inadvertently released a murder defendant after failing to look at the man's file before issuing an order to let him out of jail.
As a judge in the system, Femia said, he does not find protective orders especially useful.
"I think they are a balm to make women feel better. In my opinion, they make women feel they are protected -- and they are not," Femia said.
"There's nothing I can do that protects you from someone who wants to get you."