WASHINGTON/NORFOLK -- Tens of thousands of felony suspects can escape justice simply by crossing a state border because police and prosecutors have decided not to pursue them once they leave the state, a USA TODAY investigation finds.
Instead, police routinely allow fugitives wanted for everything from drunken driving to murder to go free, leaving their crimes unpunished, their victims outraged and the public at risk. With no one chasing them, those unwanted fugitives have gone on to rape, kidnap, rob banks and kill, often as close as in the state next door, USA TODAY found.
Nationwide, police and prosecutors told the FBI that they would not attempt to retrieve 186,873 accused felons if police find them in another state, a process known as extradition.
'It's just wrong. It's a mockery of the justice process,' said Will Marling, the director of the National Organization for Victim Assistance. 'It says to victims that this really isn't that important, because otherwise we'd try to do something about it.'
The FBI and many police agencies refused to identify those fugitives. But USA TODAY found them anyway, using court records and police databases to track them to suburban cul-de-sacs and county jails across the country. Its investigation found:
-- Even people wanted for serious crimes get away. The nation's unwanted fugitives include more than 3,300 people accused of sexual assaults, robberies or homicides. They include a man wanted for hacking his roommate's neck with a machete during a fight over two cans of beer, a man who allegedly shot his girlfriend to death, and a man charged with sexually assaulting a bedridden stroke victim.
-- Fugitives don't have to go far to escape. In Philadelphia the hub of a metropolis that spans four states officials say they won't extradite 93% of the accused felons they listed in the FBI's database. That means even fugitives found in the Camden, N.J., jail, whose windows look out on downtown Philadelphia, are often not returned to face the charges. 'They're pretty much scot-free here as long as they stay here in New Jersey,' said Capt. John Fetzer, the head of a fugitive-tracking squad in Camden.
-- For many fugitives, freedom is a license to commit new crimes. Unwanted fugitives killed two New York City police officers in the past decade. Another was charged with shooting a young mother and three teenagers to death in rural Tennessee. Yet another fugitive, wanted for robbery, stomped and kicked 79-year-old Roosevelt Morrow to death during a robbery in his Salem, N.J., home.
'That's crazy,' Morrow's widow, Callie Morrow, said. 'If they had come and got him, he would have been locked up and my husband would still be living.'
Spokespersons for both Norfolk and Newport News Police say they stop suspects on a regular basis who are wanted in other states but the warrants are coded not to extradite.
'We book them for the offense that we stop them for, but that's pretty much all we can do,' says Norfolk Police spokesman Officer Daniel Hudson.
Newport News spokesperson Holly McPherson says most of the time the offenses are minor.
And it works both ways. In Norfolk, the FBI database shows police logged 1,056 outstanding felony warrants as of May 2013. 30 percent are marked as not to extradite. 23 of the outstanding warrants are for violent offenses and of those, nine percent are marked as not to extradite.
In Newport News, police won't go retrieve 23 percent of the 660 of the suspected felons. In Hampton, 41 percent of the 316 would stay across state borders.
Newport News, Hampton and Norfolk have the most felony warrants lists as non-extraditable in Hampton Roads.
Norfolk Commonwealth's Attorney spokeswoman Amanda Howie says the office does indeed pursue extradition of defendants charged with committing violent crimes/acts of violence in Norfolk.
They'll also go after defendants with charges involving large amounts of money. But each defendant is reviewed on a case by case basis.
Some of the factors that determine if the office will pursue extradition include:
- Location of defendant
- Proximity of defendant's current location to Virginia/Norfolk (Surrounding states)
- Public safety and criminal justice interests like a defendant's criminal record
- Charge(s) defendant is facing and the nature of the offense
- Manpower and financial resources needed to return defendant to Norfolk (This would involve the Norfolk Police Department, Virginia State Police, etc...)
No one knows exactly how many fugitives are allowed to slip away every year or how many people they harm because few police agencies bother to keep track. But the numbers are almost surely substantial. In Washington, D.C., alone, for example, one of every six people charged with murder between 2007 and 2011 was already wanted for something else, USA TODAY found after reviewing hundreds of pages of confidential pretrial reports.
Prosecutors and police officials say a cumbersome and costly extradition process leaves them little choice but to let those fugitives go. Because each state is its own sovereign entity, police can't move fugitives from one to another without the permission of both states' governors, a process that can take months.
'It's all a budget decision,' National District Attorneys Association Executive Director Scott Burns said. But he said the authorities should nonetheless be reluctant to let so many fugitives get away. 'When there's a warrant for somebody's arrest, it should mean something. It should mean we're going to come get you,' he said.
That picture is only getting worse. Nationwide, tight budgets are forcing police and prosecutors to chase fewer suspects into other states and narrowing the list of crimes for which they'll extradite.The number of felony warrants marked as not extraditable in the FBI's fugitive database increased more than 31% in the nine months ending in May 2013.
'We have a fixed amount of money and we have to be selective about who we spend it on,' said Guilford County, N.C., Chief Assistant District AttorneyHoward Neumann.
The fugitives USA TODAY tracked down typically knew the police weren't coming for them. Darrell Matthews, who has been wanted for drunken driving in Philadelphia since shortly after he collided with an unmarked police car in 2001, says the police know exactly where to find him just across the New Jersey state line, often already in jail.
'They had their opportunities to come get me. They don't want me,' Matthews said.
To that, Laurie Malone, the deputy district attorney who supervises extradition in Philadelphia, said: 'He's right.'
Contributing: Mark Hannan, Michael Auslen, Dan Singer, Alex Beall