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Dozens of suspected murderers, rapists and other criminals who were arrested by Detroit Police over the past four years have been released because of a backlog of unsigned warrants at the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office, The Detroit News has found.

Among the pending and as yet unsigned warrants are 21 for murder, including one going back to 2010. There are 105 for sexual assaults, 126 for child abuse and 25 from the Detroit Police Fatal Squad. In most cases, police were forced to release the suspects, since state and federal law says they can't be held beyond 72 hours without being arraigned.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy insists many of the releases are a result of too few employees in her office.

"I have been saying for two years what would happen if our budget was cut," Worthy said. "We have lost half of our staff and it is no surprise that we are not able to fulfill our mandated functions with such drastic staff reductions.

"It certainly is not surprising that this has impacted our ability to review and charge warrant requests presented to us," Worthy said.

The prosecutors office has 134 staff attorneys, having lost more than 90 this year due to budget cuts, spokeswoman Maria Miller said. The reductions have spilled over into a public feud between Worthy and outgoing Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano over funding.

"When we had higher staffing levels, we would have anywhere from 20 to 80 (not-in-custody) warrants that went back approximately two to three weeks," Miller said.

In 2010, the prosecutor's Warrants division had eight full-time attorneys, and two or three part-time project consultants. There are now five full-time attorneys, one who works 32 hours per week and a part-timer.

"Since the warrant operation must cover a seven-day work week, this means on average there are only three people working on most days," Miller said.

Because of the backlog, suspected violent criminals are routinely freed from jail, sometimes going on to commit more crimes. In one recent case, a man who had been arrested for a sexual assault but let go after the warrant was denied by prosecutors went on to rape multiple women.

Detroit Police Chief James Craig said he sympathizes with Worthy's plight, but he has staffing challenges of his own.

"I recognize and understand that the prosecutor's office is understaffed, but I can't and won't say I don't have enough officers to do the job," Craig said. "I don't have the luxury of saying that. I have fewer officers today than when I got started, but I can't say, 'We don't have enough people.' That's not an option."

'It's worse now than ever'

In addition to staffing challenges, Miller said prosecutors often are forced to return warrants because police don't do a thorough enough job investigating the cases.

"We have returned 62 homicide warrants back to the department for further investigation that was needed," Miller said. "The office-wide protocol is to review the warrant presented; and if we need further evidence, we return the warrant with a list of the requested work that is needed from the police. When the police have completed the work, it is returned to us.

"Over the last year, we have seen an increase across the board for Detroit cases that must be returned for further work," Miller said. "Prosecutor Worthy estimates that a fourth of all DPD cases across the entire office are returned for further investigation."

Miller said the most common reasons for returning warrants are the need for forensic analysis, video evidence that hadn't been provided; a suspect's videotaped confession that police didn't include in their warrant request; and failure to interview relevant witnesses.

The rift between police, who are certain they have caught the right suspects, and prosecutors sending warrant requests back for more work isn't new, said former Wayne County Prosecutor Gary M. Wilson, now a Grosse Pointe Woods defense attorney.

"But it's worse now than it ever was because the county's budget cuts have drastically reduced the number of assistant prosecutors," said Wilson, who left the prosecutor's office in 1992 after four years. "One of the problems is there's a difference in what each side thinks makes for a good case.

"I don't know if prosecutors are trying to keep their prosecution rate high, but it's ridiculous to try to make an airtight case at the warrant stage," Wilson said. "They shouldn't be holding police to that kind of standard. The standard is probable cause, not certainty of prosecution."

Rapist freed to rape again

Detroit investigators thought they presented a solid case when they sought a warrant against Jamieson Kelley.

They arrested him in September 2011 for allegedly raping a woman inside his Cass Corridor apartment. The victim picked him out of a photo lineup and was able to identify where he lived.

Kelley was released from prison three months earlier, after serving 10 years for sexual assault, and investigators were sure they had their man when they submitted a warrant request.

Three months later, however, prosecutors denied the request, citing insufficient evidence and an "unreliable" witness.

After his release from police custody, Kelley was charged with raping three more women in 2013 and 2014. He pleaded guilty in November to 15 charges of criminal sexual assault, among other charges, and was sentenced to between 22 1/2 and 50 years each for nine of the rape charges.

As prosecutors prepared their case against Jamieson for the most recent rapes, investigators were perplexed: The original 2011 victim prosecutors had deemed unreliable was on the list to be used as a witness in the later assaults. Before Jamieson's guilty plea, the woman was to be used as a 404(b) witness, who are used to show a pattern of behavior.

"If they're saying it's something we should've done in our investigation, that's one thing," Craig said. "But if we're talking about a witness not being credible, how can they then turn around and use that same witness in a later case? Either she's credible or she isn't.

"We believed we arrested the right suspect, and it turned out we were right. This man is a predator who was allowed to go back and rape more women."

Miller said the victim was originally deemed unreliable because "the case was a case where it was one person's word against the other, and with the evidence we had we did not feel the likelihood of conviction was strong. It did not have other evidence to support charging the case at the time we received it.

"Although there may be insufficient evidence to charge a case, it is still possible that it can be used in another case to show the common scheme, pattern or method, despite issues that may have lead to a denial for insufficient evidence."

As prosecutors try to keep up with new warrant requests with reduced staff, they're also wading through a backlog of 11,000 untested rape kits that were found in a Detroit Police property room in 2009.

"We need to have adequate investigators and prosecutor staff to complete the work on these cases, as well as working on the sexual assault cases coming in every day," Miller said.

Meanwhile, Craig said, all his officers can do is continue to arrest suspects.

"Once we arrest them and submit a warrant request, it's out of our hands," he said.

Correction: This story should have said some cases involving unsigned warrants in the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office resulted in suspects being released from jail, according to police officials. The story should not have suggested suspects were released from jail in a majority of cases. The story should not have indicated a rape suspect was released from jail because of a case backlog; he was released because prosecutors decided to deny the warrant. Also, while unsigned murder warrants dated back to 2010, the case in question from that year was sent back to police for further investigation, and police never re-sent the warrant request.

ghunter@detroitnews.com(313) 222-2134

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