The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Federal prosecutor in D.C. made ‘misrepresentations’ to judge, is referred for internal investigation, court records say

A federal prosecutor falsely blamed a nonexistent backlog at the D.C. crime lab for delays that contributed to the dismissal of a drug and gun case and the matter has been referred for internal Justice Department investigation, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in the District.

The office of U.S. Attorney Jessie K. Liu notified the judge handling the case of the actions in court filings. U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan of the District last week directed prosecutors to address whether the attorney alone or others also should be referred for review by disciplinary bodies for the D.C. Bar Association and for the court.

Criminal division chief T. Patrick Martin and his deputy, John Crabb Jr., first informed Sullivan and the defendant’s attorney in a May 23 letter that they had learned that day of potential misstatements by the assistant U.S. attorney, who was not named then or in subsequent filings. Earlier case records show the attorney handling the case was Nurudeen Elias.

In a follow-up notice filed with the letter in the court’s docket June 28, Crabb wrote, “Based on its review of the record, the government has determined that misrepresentations were made to the Court.”

Crabb said that the prosecutor said he had notified the D.C. crime lab of a court deadline to complete testing on suspected drugs, then blamed the lab when it was not done on time, when neither was true. Court filings show Elias gave the representations in an April 9 hearing and in an April 15 motion, in which he cited “confusion and backlog” at the lab. Sullivan dismissed the case in May, citing defendant Michael Pitts’s right to a speedy trial.

Elias, an assistant U.S. attorney, declined to comment.

The case comes as Liu’s office has shifted scores of gun-crime prosecutions to federal court from local D.C. Superior Court as part of a citywide crackdown on felons caught illegally possessing a firearm and on repeat violent offenders. The move is intended to combat the city’s escalating violence, and while its effects are just beginning to be felt, it has increased workloads and operational challenges for police, prosecutors and court agencies.

Elias has handled about a dozen prosecutions within the past year at the U.S. District Court and at least seven D.C. Superior Court cases that resulted in convictions publicized in office news releases since 2016, including for burglary, armed robbery and illegal gun possession.

Prosecutors did not identify the reviewing office, but people familiar with the matter said the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility is responsible for investigating department attorneys accused of misconduct or crimes in their professional duties.

Defense lawyers familiar with the case said it could be up to that office or other Justice Department reviewers whether to review prior convictions handled by Elias.

Pitts’s attorney, Joanne Slaight, said she never accused prosecutors of misrepresenting facts in the case and was troubled by the events.

“We rely on the good faith of the government, just as they rely on our good faith,” Slaight said. “We’re all officers of the court. We’re all supposed to be truthful in our representation.”

Liu spokeswoman Kadia Koroma said the office declined to comment beyond public filings. She said Elias, like all line prosecutors, was not authorized to comment without permission.

Pitts, 42, of the District, was originally charged Jan. 19 in D.C. Superior Court with local drug and firearm offenses, before his case was transferred to federal court. He was arrested by police after a Glock 42 semiautomatic .380-caliber pistol and suspected drugs were found in a common area of his mother’s apartment, where he was allegedly living at the time, according to court filings.

Sullivan tossed out the case in May after the government failed to conduct forensic testing on the pistol. In court papers, Elias noted he had been handling another case at trial and called the mistake an “oversight” that “was not made in bad faith.”

Sullivan wrote in his ruling that the failure followed “a number of unforced errors by the government,” including the inability to produce timely drug-testing results and the accidental destruction of Pitts’s cellphone when it fell off a motorcycle and “got run over” by a government agent transporting it for testing.

Prosecutors could not obtain new results in time without violating Pitts’s right to a speedy trial, typically 70 days after charging, Sullivan said. He dismissed the case May 14.

Sullivan did not directly criticize the prosecutor at a hearing when he tossed Pitts’s case, saying “the bottom line” was “an overworked attorney, and some things may have fallen through the cracks.” He added: “It happens to all of us. It happens to judges, too.”

Nine days later, Elias’s superiors notified Sullivan their office may have provided “inaccurate information.”

Specifically, Crabb wrote, prosecutors never communicated with the lab that Sullivan had set an April 8 deadline to complete a drug test, contrary to Elias’s assurances. In addition, although Elias blamed delays at the testing agency, Crabb said the office has “no information to suggest that [the D.C. Department of Forensic Services] had a ‘backlog.’ ”

Crabb’s notice came after Jenifer Smith, director of the District’s Department of Forensic Sciences, responded on May 22 to a Washington Post inquiry about the case, writing in an email that the prosecutor’s backlog claims were “disconcerting” and false and that she was unaware of any such complaints.

In a follow-up the next day, she added, “Based on my review, we completed analysis on the evidence before the deadlines requested by the United States Attorney’s Office,” adding: “I have received no complaints from the USAO alleging ‘confusion and backlog’ at DFS. . . . To my knowledge we are meeting their deadlines for requests in a timely fashion.”

Smith said that Elias asked the lab to complete its drug analysis by April 15 and that it did so five days early, sending results to Elias and Michael T. Ambrosino, who leads the U.S. attorney’s office’s DNA and forensic litigation.

The Department of Forensic Sciences will no longer work with Elias on cases, Smith said.

From 2015: Prosecutors criticize D.C. crime lab’s handling of some DNA evidence

Forensic errors trigger reviews of D.C. crime lab ballistics unit, prosecutors say

D.C. crime lab restarts DNA testing on limited basis after shutdown cast doubts over analysis

Probe of FBI agent has devastating effect on D.C. drug cases

Local newsletters: Local headlines (8 a.m.) | Afternoon Buzz (4 p.m.)

Like PostLocal on Facebook | Follow @postlocal on Twitter | Latest local news