DC’s Lock-Up Problem: Murder suspects wait up to two years for their day in court

Recently, the Washington Post made waves by reporting that a

Recently, the Washington Post made waves by reporting that a D.C. criminal release program is putting dangerous criminals back on the streets to wreak violent mayhem on the city.

But while there have been truly tragic incidents, the reality is that those cases are rare– and even more rare when looking at the most heinous of crimes: murder.

Of those arrested and charged with murder, only five– four of them women, involved in domestic incidents, were released after initial hearings. The chance of someone charged with a violent crime and being released is slim, as D.C.’s court system did away with a system of bail, where defendants can put down money to get out of jail. So those charged with crimes are either held behind bars or released under certain conditions like house arrest or electronic tracking. But it is rare for violent offenders to be released.

It is what happens to those held rather than those released that is the real story.

D.C. Witness’ review of data, and attendance at court hearings reveals that 165 men, women and juveniles were arrested and charged with murder between  2015 and 2016. Of those only 33 have had their cases resolved. That means 133, or over ¾ of those arrested over the last two years are sitting in jail – some for as long as a two years.

Equally importantly, of the 297 homicides in 2015 and 2016, more than half are unsolved (164) meaning you have a better than 50 percent chance of getting away with murder in DC.

The reality is that nobody, not even those responsible, are paying much attention to what happens once someone has been charged and locked up.

Of those who were charged since 2015, only one made it to trial and was acquitted, after he had spent 493 days in jail. The other 32 resolved cases were settled with a plea deal– ranging from settled charges of murder to assault, with the highest sentence handed down being 26 years. If those accused are not willing to accept a plea deal, the process all but comes to a halt.

Beyond the question of how justice is ultimately doled out, an unanswered question for DC is how holding so many suspects for up to 2 years without trial can be reconciled with sixth amendment that guarantees a fair and speedy one.

D.C. Witness has tracked those charged with murder in the city since the start of 2015 and found that as of midnight January 1, 2017, 149 men and women charged with murder had been waiting an average of 303 days for their case to be resolved. Of those suspects, 47 are pending trial, 62 are pending on some other matters before trial,  and others are waiting on on other issues, such as mental health evaluations or stays in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, which drag out the average. There are 8 suspects who are pending sentencing, all who face mandatory jail time. Their convictions range from murder to assault.

While waiting for an indictment, or watching as a case is rescheduled or delayed while both sides wait for information and evidence, the judge often checks in on how much longer a case has– before the “180 day rule” goes into effect. Because all felony cases head to a grand jury in D.C., the law says the government has 180 days to indict. After that, it is often both sides, the government and the defense attorney who argue for delays in moving to trial.

Marc Schindler, Executive Director of the Justice Policy Institute argues that this slow process may not always be a bad thing as in terms of justice because it allows for a more thorough process. That’s because D.C.’s public defender service, which has some of the lowest caseloads around the country,  only takes on the most serious crimes and  has a reputation for being one of the best public defender offices around the country. Coupled with a strange federal/local system, where it is the federal District Attorney’s office arguing murder cases, you have high-level attorneys on both sides and a DC murder trial becomes a battle of legal power houses.

“Just like on the defense side, where we have a really well-resourced, very professional and capable team of defense lawyers, you also have prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office who are well-resourced…and I would say by virtue of quality and ability, at the very top of what you’d see from a local prosecutor’s office….so here, you really have a true adversarial system.”

So as the legal “A” teams gird for battle, those charged sit in jail waiting with no one to argue for a quick resolution.

But Schindler also added  a caveat– it’s hard to judge the D.C. system when you don’t know how it shapes up against other systems. And no one is apparently tracking what is happening between charging and judicial resolution on a national scale for murder or any other crimes. While the city has been lauded and applauded for abolishing the bail system as a way to not release the rich and incarcerate the poor, no D.C. organizations are paying attention to these pre-trial detention times, neither justice advocacy organizations nor the DC government itself.

When D.C. Witness was looking into the story, not a single organization knew nor was interested in these wait times, that entail justice delayed and denied. The ACLU referred comments to the Public Defender Service which didn’t return multiple requests for comment. The Washington Lawyer’s Committee Prisoner’s Project doesn’t deal with pre-trial criminal issues. The Sentencing Project deals with sentencing, and the Pre-Trial Institute deals with pre-trial issues on a much more generalized basis and not just about felons.

So who do we have tracking the wait times? The men, women and children waiting in D.C. jails to have their day in court– and the families of those victims, waiting for justice.



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