HOW HORRIBLE to realize that the murder of Janice Lancaster in her kitchen Monday was no surprise. No one sensed its coming more than Ms. Lancaster herself. She had taken every legal step she could to protect herself from her violent, threatening, stalking husband. She had demonstrated beyond doubt that he should be locked up. But the system failed her. While a warrant for his arrest lay unprocessed in the Charles County District Court's office, her husband shot Ms. Lancaster to death and then killed himself.

Things began to get deadly serious in the fall of 1998. After Steve Lancaster became brutal, wife Janice sought a protective order against him but dropped the matter when the couple tried to reconcile. Even then, persistent fear prompted her to draw up a will; not long thereafter, she was battered again. He pleaded guilty to assault and was given 18 months' probation.

Probation? Freedom to terrorize more. Ms. Lancaster, by now sleeping in the toolshed each night, filed for divorce. On Dec. 20, after another violent argument in which her husband screamed at her to get out "before you won't make it out," Ms. Lancaster contacted the state's attorney's office. An assistant state's attorney promptly asked the court for a bench warrant for Steve Lancaster on harassment charges.

The request did not reach the judge until Dec. 29. He signed it right away, but the warrant was not processed by the clerk's office before it closed for the long holiday weekend. In other words, the warrant for the arrest of Steve Lancaster was requested and went unprocessed for 13 days--at which point came the murder. "A horrible situation," says Martha M. Rasin, chief judge of Maryland's District Court, but a "normal" time lapse.

"Normal"? No, intolerable. Janice Lancaster was in evident danger, and her request should have been treated as an emergency. If this case was handled according to normal procedures, as the chief judge maintains, the procedures must be changed. Paperwork and holiday schedules are no excuse for leaving someone in desperate distress. The death of Janice Lancaster should not be considered a closed case. The system must be tightened.