Our View: Who’s responsible?

Our View: Who’s responsible?
The Franklin P. Backus Courthouse in Old Town. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

Arguably the most tragic local event in this sad year is the killing of Karla Dominguez last month, allegedly by the man she accused of raping her last fall, Ibrahim Bouaichi – who then took his own life.

The snapshot is not pretty: A soon-to-retire Alexandria judge releases a man accused of a violent crime because of COVID-19 concerns. This is the gist of media reports to date. But as evidenced by today’s page one Times story, “How an accused rapist was released from jail,” there’s a lot more to this saga than initially meets the eye.

In a nutshell, Bouaichi allegedly raped Dominguez in her Alexandria apartment last October. A grand jury indicted Bouaichi in December, and a jury trial was set for March 30, 2020. Then COVID-19 hit and there was a push nationwide, not just in Alexandria, to free as many people as possible who were either serving terms or awaiting trial.

Bouaichi’s attorneys requested his release on April 8. Prosecutors from the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney objected, but Circuit Court Judge Nolan Dawkins ordered Bouaichi released the next day with conditions. Dawkins did not require Bouaichi to wear a tracking ankle bracelet. And a tragedy ensued.

Dominguez’s death hit like a gut punch because she surely would still be alive if the system hadn’t failed her. We are left asking, ‘How could this possibly have happened?’

At least five different entities were participants in this systemic failure:

• Bouaichi’s defense attorneys were the ones who filed the motion to release their client, who was being held on charges of a violent assault. It’s the role of defense attorneys to argue on their clients’ behalf, and Bouaichi’s attorneys appear to genuinely believe that their client was innocent of the rape charge. But Bouaichi would not have been released without their motion.

• Judge Nolan Dawkins made the actual decision to release Bouaichi after hearing evidence from Bouaichi’s lawyers and the prosecution. While possibly not the overriding factor in the judge’s decision – we don’t know since Dawkins understandably declined to comment on the case – surely COVID-19 concerns played a role in Bouaichi’s release given that pandemic anxiety was possibly at its peak in early April. The most inexplicable facet of Bouaichi’s case is that Dawkins declined to order Bouaichi to wear a GPS ankle bracelet upon his release.

• Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter states that his prosecutors strenuously objected to Bouaichi’s release because of the violent nature of the charges against Bouaichi. But Porter did not file an appeal of the decision. Perhaps such an effort, as Porter posits, would have been futile. But we will never know since he didn’t attempt to have the judge’s decision reviewed.

• The Alexandria Sheriff’s Office appears to bear responsibility for failure to ensure that the conditions Dawkins placed on Bouaichi’s release were enforced – though we’re not sure, as representatives for the Sheriff’s Department, the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office and the court seem to be passing that hot potato of responsibility around. Unfortunately, state law prevents the public from accessing records of pretrial services compliance, meaning such records are exempt from scrutiny under the Freedom of Information Act.

• And Maryland police unaccountably didn’t alert their Alexandria counterparts when Bouaichi was arrested on May 8 in Greenbelt, Maryland. That arrest violated the terms of Bouaichi’s release and would have been sufficient to reincarcerate him ahead of trial.

And it must be asked, in the same week that we celebrate the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote, if this case is at least partly another chapter in a long, sad history of our country’s criminal justice system failing women, particularly in cases that are sexual in nature.

In most instances, even tragedies, it’s preferable to fix broken processes rather than to point fingers. We see three areas that are ripe for systemic change:

• Given that all people make mistakes, let’s eliminate part of the subjectivity from bond requests by forbidding the release on bond of anyone who has been indicted by a grand jury for a violent crime. If that’s not legally possible, then at least mandate that every person so released must wear a GPS ankle bracelet.

• Figure out who is responsible for enforcing court bond conditions and hold them accountable. There should be no mystery here. Secondly, change state law to eliminate the protection from FOIA scrutiny that pretrial services now receives. Why is the system being protected at the expense of public safety?

• Fix communication systems with surrounding states so that each is automatically notified of arrests so that a lapse like this doesn’t happen again.

When no one takes responsibility for actions or compliance, then everyone involved shares the blame.