U.S. marshals have transferred scores of D.C. Jail inmates awaiting federal trial to jails across Virginia after a defendant walked out of a Southeast Washington halfway house and days later allegedly killed his former employer in Tennessee.
Federal marshals have been frustrated for months over lapses in prisoner tracking by local District authorities.
After Domenic Micheli absconded, the D.C. Department of Corrections and pretrial services officials failed to notify U.S. marshals he was missing, according to several District and federal officials familiar with the incident. An arrest warrant was issued only after he was wanted in the Tennessee death, the officials said.
Pretrial defendants ordered held by federal district court in D.C. are the responsibility of the U.S. Marshals Service, which pays local jails to hold them under contract.
The lapse with Micheli aggravated a long-running dispute between federal and District authorities over prisoner monitoring mistakes by the D.C. Jail, including inmates released too soon and inmates held longer than they should have been. Federal judges have said the errors pose a significant public safety problem.
Micheli had been arrested in April near the White House and charged with a federal misdemeanor after refusing to remove his vehicle from a Secret Service checkpoint.
Rob Turner, acting U.S. Marshal for the U.S. District Court in the District, said the marshals recently moved 65 out of the roughly 700 federal prisoners to regional jails “due to challenges with the performance of D.C. Jail.”
Turner said he recognized the “significant effort” District officials have made to improve prisoner monitoring and the ongoing collaboration to better track prisoner movements, but concluded in arranging the relocations that “public safety is a primary concern for all law enforcement officers.”
Micheli was ordered released to the custody of the D.C. corrections department for transfer to a halfway house on May 2. The department said he was reported as an escapee May 23, but the notice evidently did not go to the marshals service for the federal court.
Elected D.C. officials, including Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), objected to the marshals’ moving the inmates two or more hours’ drive from the District. Some defense advocates and judges said the relocation has burdened court operations with the added logistics of shuttling defendants greater distances, raised hurdles for defendants’ preparing their cases and strained inmate families.
“I would call it a colossal mistake,” Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), chairman of the D.C. Council committee on public safety and the judiciary, said of the marshals’ response. “To take D.C. residents who are awaiting trial and move them two hours away is not a way to solve whatever problems they have with the D.C. Department of Corrections . . . I sure hope there isn’t a cost-saving behind this, because that would be the absolute worst reason to make a decision.”
The marshals service reimburses the District $122 a day for each federal prisoner that the jail or contractors, such as halfway houses, hold. The daily rate is as low as $60 when inmates are in outlying regional detention centers, the marshals service said.
But, Turner said, “cost is not a factor in this decision” to move the inmates. The marshals service declined to say where the inmates were sent. However, several defense lawyers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were referring to client matters, said inmates were shifted to facilities including Northern Neck Regional Jail, 90 miles away from D.C. in Warsaw, Va., and Piedmont Regional Jail, 180 miles away near Farmville in southside Virginia.
Federal judges including U.S. District Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell of the District have been troubled for months about jail operations and communication breakdowns with the federal marshals service.
The Micheli incident came less than a month after a federal judge castigated D.C. corrections officials for a half-dozen erroneous inmate releases and a high-profile mix-up involving a Prince George’s County man housed in D.C. jail in a pending federal case. That man was on the verge of being released to await trial, despite also having a separate hold order from Prince George’s County, where he was facing an attempted murder charge.
U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan said after the near miss release that he did not want to intercede directly in jail operations “but I can and I will if necessary.”
The anxieties among federal judges escalated after Micheli walked off in May from the halfway house and days later was accused of the killing.
Micheli, 36, was arrested in his bloody car near Bowling Green, Ky., after witnesses told police he used a hatchet and knife on June 4 to kill his former boss at a Nashville gym from which he had been fired, Nashville police said. He has been charged with criminal homicide in Davidson County, Tenn., according to court records.
Micheli’s defense attorney in the District, Assistant Federal Defender Tony W. Miles, declined to comment on the case, as did a spokeswoman for the Nashville metropolitan public defender’s office, including about whether Micheli has entered a plea.
After Micheli’s arrest in the killing, Howell, the chief federal judge, and council member Allen each summoned District officials to address the continuing errors involving federal inmates detained at D.C. facilities.
At a June 28 council committee hearing, D.C. corrections chief Quincy L. Booth told Allen’s panel the department “takes responsibility” for identifying the causes and remedies for six mistaken releases in the last year and has disciplined workers and boosted staff, training, and coordination with U.S. marshals.
“Even one erroneous release is too many, and we are committed to a zero-tolerance policy on any recurrences,” Booth said, adding that the District has hired an external consultant, the Moss Group, to recommend improvements by Sept. 1.
Federal judges have met with Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and her staff, the office of D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Kevin Donahue and Bowser’s legal counsel and chief lobbyist to hammer out differences, Booth testified.
“Mayor Muriel Bowser and the Department of Corrections take this issue extremely seriously,” Booth told the council, and are “fully committed” to working with federal partners to improve coordination, accountability and safety.
A spokeswoman declined to elaborate on Bowser and Donahue’s concerns except to refer to Booth’s statement. Norton’s spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Howell is monitoring the department’s progress and has asked for regular updates, a court official said. A court spokeswoman declined to comment.