To Annapolis police, their arrest of Steven Gregory Anderson two weeks ago on charges he broke into a car and stole a woman's purse was airtight.
They say Anderson was standing 20 feet from the purse, ran away when he saw the officers and was identified by a witness as the man standing near the car with the broken side window.
But District Court Commissioner Lisa Williams disagreed, and in the early morning hours of Sept. 14 released Anderson on personal recognizance after deciding the police lacked evidence to arrest him.
Two days later, Anderson was charged with first-degree murder in the slaying of Gwyn Dixon Criswell, a 41-year-old mother of two whose body was found in the woods behind the Crofton Library. She was killed while running errands Sunday morning.
Williams' decision to release Anderson because she found no probable cause for his arrest is coming under fire from many officials in the criminal justice system. Had there been a finding of probable cause, Anderson most likely would have been held on bail based on his criminal record.
Most complain about the commissioner's decision. Others point a finger at the state prison system, which released Anderson in June, 17 months early from a 6 -year sentence because he had earned good-behavior and work credits.
State's Attorney Frank Weathersbee has asked the grand jury to investigate the commissioner system. Candidates running for attorney general and state's attorney also have joined in the criticism, with Ed Blanton, the Republican candidate for attorney general, saying commissioners should not be deciding questions of probable cause.
"It is difficult for us to believe that Anderson should have been released, considering his situation," Weathersbee wrote to the grand jury foreman.
Blanton said Annapolis police had more than enough evidence to arrest Anderson. "It was a mistake in judgment on the commissioner's part," he said.
Blanton said commissioners should decide bail, but leave determining probable cause up to a judge. "The commissioner should never be placed in a situation to make judgements like this."
Chief District Court Commissioner Emory Swink refused to talk about the Anderson decision because it is a active case. He said Williams is under "strict orders" not to talk to the press.
Judge Robert F. Sweeney, the chief judge of District Court in Maryland and supervisor of the state's 200 court commissioners, also refused to comment directly on the Anderson case. But he defended the commissioners' authority in deciding probable cause, saying they are judicial officers with training in that area of the law.
State law does not require court commissioners to have law degrees, only that they live in the county in which they serve. "It is a fascinating qualification," Sweeney said. "It is the only inadequate qualification I see in the statute."
Sweeney says his commissioners must either have a bachelor's degree or have attended two years of college and have two years experience working in the criminal justice system.
Sweeney said commissioners streamline the judicial process, so people arrested can have quick hearings. He said judges do not have the time to hold probable cause or bail hearings for each of the estimated 150,000 warrantless arrests made statewide each year.
People arrested go to the police station, where they are booked and fingerprinted, and then driven over to District Court to see a commissioner. The commissioner must first decide if the police were justified in making the arrest.
If the commissioner finds the arrest to be justified -- Sweeney said they do in an "overwhelming majority" of cases -- then the issue of bail is addressed. If no probable cause is found, the defendant must be released on personal recognizance, regardless of criminal record.
"It is the exceptional cases where a commissioner finds no probable cause," Sweeney said. "We don't have a lot of police officers out there making a pattern of bad arrests. But we certainly have some."
Sweeney said the most common reason a suspect is released is that the police officer has not included important facts in charging documents, which commissioners use to determine if arrests are justified. The officer in charge of the lockup, rather than the arresting officer, usually accompanies the suspect to the hearing, so the commissioner is unable to get the missing information, Sweeney said.
Annapolis Police spokesman Dermott Hickey said he believes that's what happened in the Anderson case. But he insisted the charging document had sufficient information to justify the arrest.
The handwritten document states: "The custodian of the car advised that her purse and contents were missing from the car. The purse and contents were located approximately 20 feet from where we stopped the defendant on the other side of a fence. The defendant passed this area after he turned onto King George Street.
"A witness identified him as the person she saw standing on Cumberland Court in the area of the car that was broken into."
Weathersbee said that although the Anderson case triggered his letter to the grand jury foreman, "I have observed over my career that very often individuals go before a commissioner and are released, and I wonder why."
The grand jury foreman, Evangelos Dantos, said no decision has been made on Weathersbee's request. He said a grand jury investigation would have to determine if the problem is caused by a faulty system or a failure to follow sound guidelines.
THE TRAIL OF STEVEN GREGORY ANDERSON May 27,1985. Break-in at the home of Judy Alice Martino, in the 1600 block Widows Mite Road in Edgewater.
May 28, 1985. Break-ins at the homes of Susan Bosworth, 1700 block Shore Drive; Kerry R. Muse, 400 block Gordontown Road; Louise Richards, 1700 block Bently Road; and David Gordon Coope, 1600 block Shadyside Road. Anderson is arrested and charged with eight counts in each of the five cases: two of burglary, one of attempted burglary, two of breaking and entering, two of attempted breaking and entering and one of theft. Bond was set at $50,000.
June 1985. Breaks a needle off in his arm while in the county Detention Center. Doctors call it a suicide attempt. Injury requires surgery.
July 1985. Following surgery, taken to Crownsville State Hospital, where he jumped out of a second story window and escaped (July 9). Caught the next day and returned to Crownsville, where he complains of injuries suffered in the escape. Taken to Anne Arundel Medical Center, where he escapes from a nurse and runs into downtown Annapolis.
July 18, 1985. Caught and brought to the Clifton T. Perkins Center in Jessup.
Aug. 1985. Treated by superintendent, Dr. Stuart Silver, and Faramarz Mokhtari, staff psychologist. They say Anderson suffers from alcohol and drug abuse but is not suffering from any mental disorder, and that he displays "anti-social" behavior. They conclude the needle incident was a suicide attempt. Anderson claims, "I was shooting speed when the needle broke. I did not want to kill myself."
Sept. 1985. Before Circuit Judge Robert Heise, pleads guilty to three breaking and entering charges (Muse, Martino and Bosworth), after judge rejects plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. Other charges dropped as part of plea agreement.
Oct. 15, 1985. Trial by jury in Richards case before Circuit Judge Martin A. Wolf.
Oct. 16, 1985. Found guilty of breaking and entering and theft in Richards case. Other charges dropped or bring not guilty verdicts.
Nov. 14, 1985. Trial on Coope case in front of Judge Heise. Anderson enters guilty plea to breaking and entering. Other charges dropped.
Dec. 4, 1985. Judge Heise sentences Anderson to 10 years in state prison, five years suspended during which time he's under supervised probation for breaking and entering charges. Sentence retroactive to May 28, when Anderson was first incarcerated. Judge Wolf sentences Anderson to 10 years in state prison, five years suspended, to run concurrently with Heise's sentence. Also sentences Anderson to 18 months, consecutive with other sentences, on the theft charge. Heise adds 18 months to his sentence, to run concurrent with Wolf's sentence.
June 29, 1986. Anderson writes a letter to Clerk E. Aubry Collinson and Judge Wolf, noting the latter had suspended the 18-month prison term.
(The commitment papers, dated Dec. 4, show 18 months was consecutive, but a handwritten note in the margin says: "Split sentence to serve 5 . . . balance suspended.") July 20, 1986. A note from Judge Wolf appears in the files: "The commitment record in the above case is incorrect. The defendant received 10 years on Count 3 and 18 months consecutive on Count 5. I suspended all but 5 years. Your record shows the suspension of sentence to apply only to Count 3. The result is the defendant serves 6 years. I only intended for him to serve 5. Please correct. M. A. Wolf."
July 21, 1986. Commitment papers are amended. "The defendant is to serve 5 years only, per Judge Wolf." The amended version of the commitment papers never went into effect, although the reason why is not clear. Susan Klaskie, spokesman for the Maryland Division of Corrections, says Anderson was serving a 6 year prison sentence. Neither Collinson, who is no longer court commissioner, nor Wolf said he could remember the case or the letter.
April 1987. Parole request denied.
July 1989. Parole request denied.
June 25, 1990. Anderson released 17 months early by earning good behavior or work credits. Although technically not on parole or probation, still must see a parole officer. As a condition of his supervision, he has to work, give a permanent address, obey the law, not get arrested, not use drugs and notify his agent as soon as he is arrested.
July 22, 1990. Anderson's sister files a complaint against Anderson for attempted arson, trespassing and theft charges. Sister says Anderson threatened to kill her and her boyfriend during an incident at their Woods Wharf Road home. Police are called twice, and warn Anderson to stay away. He complies, but then later slashes his arms at a friend's house and returns to his sister's house. His sister swears out an arrest warrant.
July 25, 1990. Anderson goes to police station to turn himself in on warrant, but no warrant is listed.
Aug. 1990. Sister drops charges. Parole officer takes no action.
Sept. 13, 1990. Charged with theft, destruction of property and being a rogue and vagabond. Annapolis police arrest him after a witness says she saw him near a car that had been broken into in the Cumberland Court area. Police say stolen purse is 20 feet from where Anderson was first stopped.
Sept. 14, 1990. Anderson brought before District Court Commissioner Lisa Williams at 2 a.m. She releases him on personal recognizance, finding the police had no probable cause for arrest.
Sept. 16, 1990. Anderson detained by county police after he is found with the car of Gwyn Dixon Criswell, a Crofton woman who had disappeared earlier in the day. Anderson is held on suspicion of murder and also armed robbery commited in connection with a purse snatching on Riva Road in Annapolis about an hour before police arrested him.
Sept. 17, 1990. Police search for six hours before finding Criswell's body in the woods behind the Crofton library. Police say Anderson denies knowledge of her, then confesses to killing her. Charged with first degree murder, two counts of armed robbery and theft.
Sept. 18, 1990. Ordered held without bail. Swallows two razor blades taken from a plastic razor in an apparent suicide attempt. Taken to hospital, but released. Doctors expect the blades to be expelled naturally.
Sept. 21, 1988. Annapolis police charge Anderson with a Sept. 1 breaking and entering in the 500 block 6th Street, in the Eastport section of Annapolis. Stolen were $500 in cash, a quarter-carat diamond ring valued at $2,000 and a pair of designer sunglasses valued at $120. Identification made with fingerprints.
Jay Apperson contributed to this story