Couple's deaths prompt questions

Mourners ask if justice system failed after killing-suicide

January 08, 2000|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

PORT TOBACCO -- First the mourners sat in the narrow white pews, and when those were filled they took to the balconies of the 202-year-old steepled church. And when there was no more room there, they stood in the aisles and the foyer and then spilled onto the sidewalks and into the street.

All told, more than 300 people showed up yesterday at St. Ignatius Catholic Church to pray for Janice Lancaster and her husband, James Steven Lancaster, the man who killed her and then himself.

What advocates for women want to know is why nobody -- especially criminal justice workers -- was around when Janice Lancaster was alive, begging for help.

She had sought protection from her husband, but when he put a bullet in her Monday, a warrant for his arrest lay uncompleted on a clerk's desk in the Charles County Courthouse. The paperwork for the warrant had begun Dec. 20, almost two weeks earlier.

"I would have thought that people there would have recognized this as a highly dangerous situation and one that needed to be moved on right away," said Carole Alexander, executive director of the House of Ruth, a shelter for women in Baltimore. "This is one of a number of cases in which unwittingly the criminal justice system has acted either too little, too late or in ways that were both flawed and uncoordinated."

Nobody can say what would have happened had the paperwork for Janice Lancaster's husband been completed sooner. It's likely, law enforcement officers say, that he would have been arrested almost immediately after sheriff's deputies picked up the warrant -- and then released on bond just as quickly.

In Maryland last year, 27 people were killed in domestic disputes among thousands of reported cases of abuse.

But the Lancaster case has stirred emotions in their rural hometown of Faulkner and elsewhere in southern Charles County not only because killing here is rare -- the county averages fewer than a dozen homicides a year -- but because Janice Lancaster did nearly all she could to get help and never got it.

That has caused both the Charles County state's attorney and the judge who administers the county courthouse to reflect on what might have been done to prevent the killing-suicide and how to make sure everything possible is done to avoid the next killing.

"We have so many domestic disputes that we're walking on eggshells because we don't know when we're going to see the next one explode," said State's Attorney Leonard Collins Jr.

"We're talking about a combination of emotion and hatred or love or whatever it is, and that's almost impossible to deal with effectively every time. Still, we have to try," he said.

There was little question in the minds of those who had been working on the warrant for James Lancaster's arrest that he was potentially dangerous. He and his wife had a long history of disputes, and he had recently written her a threatening letter.

"I'm ready to go anytime to lay my body to rest," the husband had written in November. "And me is not going to be the only one."

Janice Lancaster brought that letter with her to Collins' office after she and her husband had a shouting match Dec. 20. She had taken out a restraining order against him in February last year, but withdrew it a week later, court records show. In May, he assaulted her, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 18 months' probation.

James Lancaster was charged with assaulting his wife again in November and was released with an order not to go near her. His trial had been scheduled for next month.

Collins' office bundled the threatening letter and that history to the courthouse Dec. 20 with a request to have a judge issue an arrest warrant based on Lancaster's violation of the terms of his pretrial release from the November incident.

A clerk put the request aside until Dec. 29 to let Lancaster answer.

"That was the proper thing to do," said Martha M. Rasin, chief judge of Maryland's District Court. "If one side files a written request with the court, you have to let the other side answer. That's the normal everyday way to handle one of these."

Had clerks been notified that the Lancaster case was especially volatile, the request for a warrant could have been taken to a judge sooner, she said. But that didn't happen.

Collins said his office files only a few motions requesting such changes in bond. "All of those motions are important," he said. "We don't file them frivolously."

Charles County District Judge Gary S. Gasparovic got the request for the warrant Dec. 29 and signed it the same day. He returned the request to court clerks but it wasn't processed before the courthouse closed late Thursday afternoon for the New Year's holiday weekend.

Alexander said she and her colleagues, who are working to end abuse against women, recognize that James Lancaster may have had earlier opportunities to seek help. The threatening letter from her husband arrived in November and he apparently had violated terms of his release before the couple's argument Dec. 20.

"We could hope that victims would always act in their own best interest," she said. "But we don't know the circumstances, who he may have been threatening had she gone for more help, what the particulars were. I think the more chilling message here is that I'm not sure women should have confidence that the system can protect them."

At St. Ignatius, the mourners took a long time filing out of the church as a choir of five women and a man sang "How Great Thou Art," and crying women passed tissues to each other and dabbed tears.

Janice Lancaster's casket was rolled out of the church, followed by James Lancaster's.

They were taken next door to the church's cemetery on a bluff overlooking the Port Tobacco River. They were buried next to each other.

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