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.