IF NO ONE is to blame for the release of a man sought for 17 months on charges of armed robbery, then the District's court system is in serious trouble. But court officials, policemen, prosecutors and custody agency representatives all say they are not to be blamed for the release of William David Ferguson last Wednesday. Mr. Ferguson had eluded police for over a year and a half and was listed among the city's top 10 most wanted criminals at the time he appeared in court. Even so, Judge John R. Hess released Mr. Ferguson, who is accused of holding up a Northeast Safeway supermarket in 1979. Neither the judge nor the prosecutor noted that Mr. Ferguson had been sought for an unusually long time and that the likelihood of his return for trial was therefore small.
Irrespective of whether Mr. Ferguson eventually returns or not, the question provoked by this incident will need to be answered. Is the city's court system so disjointed that no one group is responsible for letting it be known that a particular suspect has eluded police for months and is on the "most wanted" list? Police officials say they did their job, prosecutors say the assistant U.S. attorney in the courtroom was not told of the suspect's history, and the judge says no records or statements given him indicated that Mr. Ferguson was an exceptional suspect. In fact, the judge says he would not have freed Mr. Ferguson if he had known that the suspect had eluded police for 17 months.
At the point, blame is not as important as taking steps to ensure that such incidents do not recur. The police must be held responsible for informing prosecutors -- in some official way -- that a suspect has an unusual background; the prosecutor must be responsible for informing the judge that the suspect has eluded police for an unusually long period of time; and a judge could reasonably have been expected to ask why a man charged with robbery 17 months ago was only then coming to court.Some change in the court system is in order after this. Contrary to what officials in the police department, the courts and the U.S. attorney's office are saying, someone needs to be held accountable and is accountable for Mr. Ferguson's release.