Waiting: A Year in DC Courts

Every murder case begins, publicly, when a suspect is presented with a charge.

At DC Superior Court, this happens in Courtroom C-10, a large room on the lowest floor of the courthouse. A gallery of benches face the judge, who sits at the top of a three-tiered dais.

Suspects are brought in from the judge’s left. Some wear bright orange jail jumpsuits, others are still dressed in the clothes they were arrested in. All are shackled at their hands and feet.

Nearly every suspect scans the audience for family and friends as they are brought before the judge.

Over the last 15 months, I’ve followed the cases of 109 defendants accused of murder in DC.

Only one case has gone to trial. Eighteen people have pleaded guilty, and eight of them have been sentenced. The vast majority of defendants are spending the new year at DC Jail where they are waiting for a grand jury to decide whether or not to charge them with a crime.

So many others are also waiting. The suspects’ families for their release. Victims’ families for justice. Mothers, brothers, wives and children on every side.

The murder cases are usually called after two o’clock.

A judge will hear prosecutors’ first summation of the incident and decide if a suspect could have committed the crime. Charging documents will be filed and shared with defense attorneys.

In one case this year the wrong man was presented.

Bradley Allen, arrested on a misdemeanor charge, is alleged to have switched jail identification bracelets with James Brewer and given Brewer his phone number. When Brewer appeared before the court to be presented, he posed as Allen, stating Allen’s name and signing it to court documents along with Allen’s phone number. As Allen, Brewer was arraigned on a misdemeanor and released from custody.

While waiting to be called before the court that same afternoon, Allen told U.S. Marshals that his bracelet “had inadvertently come off” and didn’t know what had happened to it. He later said someone had taken his bracelet from him. Eventually, he admitted he had given it to Brewer, who had offered him money for helping him escape, Allen said.

Allen has since been added as a co-defendant in Brewer’s case.

The next step for DC murder cases is a preliminary hearing, also called a detention hearing, to determine whether there is enough evidence to send the case to grand jury, and whether a defendant should remain jailed while the grand jury is investigating the claims.

On these days, the hallways are crowded with families of defendants, milling around, waiting, waiting, waiting until the judge calls their loved one to the bench.

Also waiting are the families of victims, sometimes wearing memorial t-shirts or pins, clutching tissues, and, often, small children. They wait inside the courtroom, not out in the hallways. And, although minutes tick by into hours, they rarely turn their attention from the judge’s bench. They are at a vigil for justice.

When families fill the courtrooms and hallways, emotions run hot. There are victory shouts sometimes when a judge orders a defendant held. Or released. Or there are shouts of anger, as the upset boils over.

There are tears, from families of victims and defendants; though often the defendants’ families try to hold them back. Biting their lips, their eyes never seem to leave their loved one’s face, back, elbow clad in jail gray or orange. As their son, brother, daughter, mother is led back into holding they sometimes blow kisses.

The inmate mouths back, “I love you.”

These hearings don’t always happen quickly. Nine of this year’s murder cases are still awaiting a preliminary hearing. Usually hearings are scheduled within about a month of an arrest, but delays and postponements frequently occur, bringing families back to court again and again, day after day.

Christian Navarette-Rivas who was arrested Oct. 20 in connection with the death of Miguel Drullard, was initially scheduled for a preliminary hearing on Nov. 17, four weeks after his arrest date. When his attorney and the prosecutor assigned to the case asked for a continuance, it was rescheduled for Dec. 15. On that date, the attorneys again asked that the case be continued, rescheduling the hearing for Jan. 24.

Others have waited longer.

Steven Cephas was arrested Nov. 10, 2010 on suspicion of second-degree murder in the death of Dominic Dwayne Kingsbury Jr, his girlfriend’s 20-month-old son. He was scheduled for a preliminary hearing on Jan. 13, 2011. A total of four hearing dates were eventually scheduled. A grand jury finally charged him with first-degree murder, before a preliminary hearing was held. At his arraignment in September, Cephas pleaded guilty.

On days when judges have scheduled trials and other longer matters instead of prelims, the hallways hush. On these days they echo with the clicks of attorneys’ heels, the rumblings of rolling briefcases, whispered conversations outside courtroom double doors and the occasional banter between police officers waiting to be called to courtrooms to testify.

Defendants are brought before the courts for status hearings while they wait to be indicted.

A few blocks away from DC Superior Court, grand juries meet at the US Attorney’s Office. The 23 citizens assigned to the grand jury meet for 25 working days, hearing evidence in multiple cases.

From the date a person is arrested on suspicion of murder, prosecutors have nine months to secure an indictment, a formal charge of the crime. The largest group of the 109 murder defendants I’m covering are waiting to be indicted.

Sometimes prosecutors can convince a judge to give an extension to the nine month period. Other times, judges hurry prosecutors along by setting trial dates even before an indictment is secured.

Trial dates are currently set in the cases of six defendants who have not yet faced formal charges: Anthony Hatton, Albrecht Muth, Dominique Bassil and co-defendants James Dean Adrian Brewer, Stephen Bernard Page Jr. and Anthony Thomas.

Eighteen suspects have plead guilty to murder or manslaughter. Eight of them were sentenced this year. Three defendants are scheduled for sentencing in the first week of 2012.

Only one case in fifteen months of reporting has gone to trial: In November, Kwan Kearney was convicted of first degree murder in the shooting death of Joseph Alonzo Sharps Jr.

Throughout this process, there are acts of kindness, reminders that every suspect, like every victim, had a life outside the court system: a marshal fixing a defendant’s dress collar; families of victims and defendants hugging, comforting one another; words from a judge, telling the final story of lives changed and ended; words from the defendant, apologizing, explaining, offering something, at the end.

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