Down in the warrants section of the Anne Arundel County Sheriff's Office, it's a matter of proving that Booker T. Jones is dead.
Notwithstanding that Baltimore City police fatally shot the murder suspect in mid-May 1989, there's an active warrant out on him for the deaths of two Glen Burnie schoolchildren a few days earlier.
Jones' is one of about 12,000 unserved warrants - 255 of them for dead people - filling 14 tall filing cabinets lining the office walls in Annapolis. It will take either the Baltimore police report or the death certificate for a judge to purge the Jones warrant.
Slashing the backlog, which became an issue in his predecessor's failed campaign for county executive, is high on the to-do list of newly elected Sheriff Ron Bateman.
He hopes to improve on the program launched a year ago by former Sheriff George F. Johnson IV called Operation Long Arm. Bateman plans to meet with judges and prosecutors tomorrow to come up with a better understanding of what types of old warrants they want to keep or purge, and which suspects prosecutors will spend thousands of dollars to extradite - if the sheriff's office can find them - and who's not worth bothering with.
Like the vintage warrants for shoplifting at Britt's, a Parole Plaza store now a footnote in retail history, or for failing to deal with a speeding ticket. In the first, the victim's gone, and in the second, extradition from thousands of miles away is unlikely.
"Are you going to prosecute?" Bateman said. "I want to know yea or nay before we go out there and lock him up."
As for the dead people, Bateman is trying to find a way of getting a death certificate without paying the state $12 or find out how to get around asking police departments to dig for an old report of a homicide or suicide - documents that courts accept as proof. Maybe, he says, there are less costly and cumbersome ways of legally proving death.
Unlike in many other counties, deputies serve all warrants in Anne Arundel County, and about 14,000 new ones arrive each year.
The approximately 12,000 old warrants are estimated to shake out like this:
3,000 are out of state.
500 are for dead people.
87 percent of the remaining 9,000 are for cases involving misdemeanor crimes, and 5,000 of those misdemeanor warrants are at least five years old.
Deputies can't find some people in recent warrants - they moved; they gave a wrong address; they lack a fixed address. But after three tries and no lead on a current address, the warrant gets filed in the office in the county courthouse.
Johnson, the previous sheriff, made a dent in the number of unserved warrants under Operation Long Arm. Only recently, county Circuit Court Administrative Judge Joseph P. Manck said he and another judge went through several cartons of old warrants Johnson handed to them, and invalidated many.
Manck and county State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee said they'll continue to help get rid of old warrants as the sheriff's office brings them to their attention, but both are loath to drop serious cases for reasons short of a death. Weathersbee said although the law allows any District Court warrant unserved for three years to be invalidated, his office asked judges a few years ago not to do that for most crimes against a person. Dropping the charges frustrated victims because a defendant could surface later.
The process of trying to locate the people named in old warrants goes folder by folder - and it typically takes a half-hour to run each name through a batch of databases in the slim hope of finding a current address. One part-time employee tries two days a week. Others, depending on what else is going on any given day, may include interns, volunteers, deputies on light duty from injuries, and whoever else has time.
"It's an overwhelming task to look for some of these people," said Nancy Staudinger, the warrant administrator.
Take William D. Vanallen, accused in 1989 of a probation violation for driving on a sidewalk. He'd moved from Severna Park - maybe to South Carolina - by the time deputies tried to serve the warrant.
As her computer screen changes colors, Staudinger, a former costume jewelry sales representative, tries to hunt Vanallen down through public, commercial and law-enforcement databanks. A state court program and in-house databank turn up nothing useful. More typing gets her into a few law-enforcement databanks and for-fee programs, but the closest she gets is a database that indicates that at some point he had been in North Carolina. After 20 minutes, she knows this: He's alive and not in a federal prison.
She turns to a publicly available, though incomplete, database of inmates - tediously searchable one state at a time. But she's limiting the hunt to the most likely states - Maryland, North and South Carolina. "Found him," she announces. He's at a North Carolina prison farm. "I don't know why he's there. I don't care," she says, as a form that will go to the state's attorney's office pops up on her screen.
It will be up to Weathersbee to decide whether to extradite or ask North Carolina to send the defendant to Anne Arundel County when his sentence ends.
Last week, Staudinger read a newspaper article that said Lawrence Edward Abbott died Dec. 31 in Calvert County Detention Center, a suspected suicide. The article noted that aside from his arrest there, he had outstanding warrants in Anne Arundel County. She checked; he did. She sent Calvert County a request for a report of the death. That, she hopes, will not be difficult to obtain because it just occurred, unlike the fatal shooting of Jones more than 15 years ago.
Staudinger's efforts get a boost from the Motor Vehicle Administration, which advises drivers that it will suspend their licenses or block vehicle registration renewal if they don't fix problems with outstanding warrants, and the Social Security Administration, which tells the sheriff's office about people seeking benefits who have outstanding warrants.
After tracking down Vanallen, Staudinger starts the next case, a man accused of forging a check in 1988.
It takes her a half-hour to find out she can't find him.