The D.C. police computer that was broken down when Bruce Wazon Griffith was mistakenly freed from jail last June was out of order again yesterday, leaving judges without the background information they needed to decide whether to release suspects before their trials.
The breakdown, which lasted six hours in the morning, was the third this week, and meant that judges had to make decisions in 13 cases only with records hastily compiled by hand.
"This week's been bad," said Kathy M. Reade, the director of training and personnel for the D.C. Pretrial Services Agency.
"It's not a real common occurrence," Reade said, "but it does happen at some of the worst times."
Even when the computer is in operation, Reade said, the records that are sent to the judges are not always complete. A key example of this bail officials said, was the case of George Bonzille Kebe Jr., who murdered a Georgetown University student last March 10.
Just weeks before that murder, Kebe appeared in D.C. Superior Court on an embezzlement charge, Reade said. Because of the way information was stored at the time, the computer did not return facts about Kebe's criminal background, which could have affected a decision by Judge Joseph M. Hannon to release Kebe on his personal recognizance, Reade said. At the time, Kebe was on probation until 1984 after serving two years in a U.S. prison in Florida for receiving stolen property.
When Kebe was arrested for the student's murder, Hannon called a bail official to his chambers and angrily demanded to know why he had not been told earlier about Kebe's record. Reade said. A check with the police department, Reade said, confirmed that the information had not turned up because computer operators had sought information only by Kebe's police identification number and not by his name, under which the information had been filed.
Although steps have been taken to improve the system following the Kebe case, Reade said that similar retrieval mistakes still can occur.
A spokesman for the D.C. police department confirmed yesterday that the computer has been out of service for 3 hours and 29 minutes on June 7, 1979, the day that Griffith appeared in D.C. Superior Court after a night in a jail on a heroin possession charge.
An intense police manhunt for Griffith, who was sought for the murder Monday night of D.C. Police Officer Arthur Snyder, ended yesterday when Griffith was shot and killed by police.
Judge Joseph M. F. Ryan Jr. released Griffith on his personal recognizance and Griffith never appeared in court again. Bruce D. Beaudin, the director of the Pretrial Services Agency, said Wednesday that the judge had not received crucial information from the computer about Griffith's criminal background, including the fact that he was on parole for a bank robbery conviction. That information might have led to a decision to keep Griffith in jail, Beaudin said.
Beaudin said he learned at a staff meeting yesterday morning, called to discuss the mistakes in the Griffith case, that the computer again was out of service.
Beaudin said that of the 43 criminal cases that came through the court system yesterday, two felony and 11 misdemeanor cases were sent on to judges without complete computerized records. Griffith, for example had been charged with a misdemeanor heroin possession charge when he appeared in court last June.
"Any one of those cases could have been just like the Griffith case," Beaudin said. "We couldn't get information from our automated system and had to give the judge what we had by hand," he said.
As a backup procedure, Beaudin said his staff telephoned police yesterday to compile background information to place in folders in time for court appearances.
Police spokesman Lt. Larry Soulsby described yesterday's particular breakdown as a freak, but major, mechanical breakdown that has happened only on one other occasion in the past six years.
Soulsby compared the breakdown to the damage that occurs when a phonograph needle breaks and tears up the record that is being played. In the case of the computer, a disc that held information compiled by police from midnight to 5 a.m. yesterday was destroyed, Soulsby said. As a result, Soulsby said, a new disc had to be prepared and the system repaired while the computer was shut down from 5 a.m. to 11 a.m.
Staff members at the Pretrial Service Agency, however, have complained that the police department has turned off the computer to make adjustments and small repairs during the height of activity at the local courthouse.
On one occasion, the computer was off at noontime -- one of the court's busiest periods -- so that the department could change a computer code table, according to training director Reade.
Although it was a minor change that could have been done at anytime, Reade said, "we're just stuck."
When bail service employes suspect that the information provided by the police is incomplete, they often interview suspects themselves. But that information often is unreliable. Griffth, for example, twice denied that he was on parole, Reade said.
According to police spokesman Soulsby, during the month of June when Griffith appeared in court, the computer was down for a total of 5 hours and 28 minutes. Technicians were updating the computer and installing new equipment, he said.
Judge Henry Kennedy, one of two judges assigned to arraignment court yesterday, said that the bail services agency often is delayed in getting reports to court because of frequent computer breakdowns. "I've asked for an oral report in those cases, but I haven't considered the oral report to be any less complete."
In the Griffith and Kebe cases, Reade said, "the information was there for police to see and for us to see" but was somehow lost through bureaucratic mistakes.
"If all systems are working it's very difficult for a defendant to slip through," Reade said.
"How many people beat the system? Not a lot do. But it seems that some of the worst do," Reade said.