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Fulton County, Georgia to Put More Defendants Back on the Streets (Translation Provided)

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Why not spend the money actually trying the cases instead?  Why bother having a justice system at all?

Court Program to Save Fulton $5.5 Million

A program that began April 1 will increase the number of defendants given pretrial release is expected to save Fulton County taxpayers more than $5.5 million a year in jail costs.

That’s “savings” as in “we’re going to shuffle these costs further down the line in some crazed and futile attempt to get through this budget year, knowing full well that our deception will be papered over by our criminologist friends (thank you, Pew Center!!!) who are busy inventing statistics that don’t take into account the added costs arising from additional victimizations, additional police investigations, and additional court cases that will result from releasing offenders pre-trial — not to mention the overall effect of further reducing the dwindling consequences for committing crimes.”

The Superior Court of Fulton County’s Pretrial Services will operate the new Intensive Supervision Program (ISP) which was recently funded by the Fulton County Commission. The program will provide rigorous supervision of defendants who don’t qualify for release under existing criteria.

That’s “defendants who don’t qualify for release under existing criteria” as in “we already let a shocking number of people go before trial or case disposition — boy, you would probably be really surprised to see some of the people we let go — but we’re still so utterly disorganized and underfunded and distracted and in some cases, just lazy, that we’re going to swing open those prison gates just a little bit wider.”

Over the past decade the Court’s existing Pretrial Services program has racked up an impressive record of reducing jail costs while ensuring that over 95 percent of program defendants show up for all scheduled court hearings.

That’s “over 95% of program defendants show up for all scheduled court hearings” as in “5% of the people who do something serious enough to end up in jail don’t show up in court after we let them go before trial.  Since we have an acknowledged backlog of some 6,000 cases, that’s 300 absconders just from the cases that are backlogged.”

The new ISP will supervise about 150 additional defendants per month.

Candidates for the program are:

• Youthful defendants charged with non-violent crimes that the Judiciary deem appropriate for release if heightened supervision is available.

That’s “appropriate for release if heightened supervision is available” as in “since we already release juvenile offenders almost automatically, even if they have been involved in home invasions or gun crimes or assaults, these kids are really scary, but we’re going to let the go anyway if heightened supervision is available.

• Defendants whose community ties cannot be “verified” or those who have not established a six month residency in the Atlanta metropolitan area
•Defendants, with little or no criminal history, charged with property crimes who do not meet normal pretrial release criteria.

That’s “little or no criminal history” as in “pretty much everything is little criminal history these days, especially since we keep giving people first-offender status for their sixth or eighth crime” and “property crimes that do not meet normal pretrial release criteria” as in ” kicking down your front door and luckily nobody got killed.  This time.”

•Defendants referred to the ISP by a judge.

That’s “referred by a judge” as in “like the judge who let rapper T.I. free on a gun charge because he’s rich, or the judge who let murderer Shamal Thompson go because he said he was a wedding dress designer.”

ISP release requirements may include:

That’s “may include” as in “not will include or must include, but may include.  Or, thus, may not.”

•In-person office contact twice a week
•Weekly field visits to defendant’s home/employer
•Curfew
•Electronic Monitoring
•Seek full-time employment if not already employed.
•Attend in-house life skills programs or community service programs.
•Be employed or actively seeking employment or school
•Defendants without high school diploma must enter GED program
•Social service agency referrals where appropriate
•Immediate sanctions in response to program infractions

That’s “immediate sanctions” as in “is that anything like the sanctions attempted murderer Joshua Norris didn’t receive when he threatened two young women with a gun while he was out on bail for repeatedly shooting another person, as in, no sanctions, unless you count being praised for stayin’ in school and then having all your other violent gun charges reduced to community service by fawning court officers as a sanction?”

The ISP will notify the Court, District Attorney, and Defense Counsel of any violations of release conditions.

That’s “will notify . . . of any violations” as in “What?  They do this already, don’t they?”

***

Here is a troubling statistic: the Department of Justice reports that in 2002 (the latest figures available)  one-third of all defendants arrested for felony crimes were “active” in the system at the time of their arrest — in other words, on parole, probation, or pre-trial release.

Here is another troubling statistic: “[t]he Fulton county jail currently has a backlog of about 880 prisoners who have been awaiting trial — most for felonies like murder, rape or armed robbery.”

32% of the people booked into the system for new felony crimes are under court supervision yet on the streets when they commit those crimes, and most of the people currently incarcerated but available for pre-trial release in Fulton County are charged with felonies like murder, rape, and armed robbery.

Hypothetically, how much money could Fulton County save if it reduced the felony crime rate by 32%  —  by not letting people out of jail while awaiting trial or finishing their sentences?

Vaut mieux prévenir que guérir. Except, apparently, in the Fulton County Courts.

Five Ugly Pieces, Part 5: Around Atlanta

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Some mop-up for the week:

The Silver Comet Trail murder case is moving along despite efforts by the defense to derail it.  Tragically, Michael Ledford’s mother had tried to get her son put back in jail before Jennifer Ewing was killed:

The mother said her son should already have been locked up and his probation revoked on July 25, 2006, the day Jennifer Ewing was beaten to death just off the popular Silver Comet Trail in Paulding County.

She said she pleaded with authorities in early July to get her son off the streets but the probation officers only told him to “behave.”

“It they got him off the streets … that lady would be alive. They let this happen,” Mihlaek testified in her son’s death penalty trial.

“They promised to do something legally. They didn’t and now it’s too late,” she said.”

Ledford’s brother also asked authorities to do something about his brother:

Mark Ledford testified family members had called his brother’s probation officers several times to report his drinking and his penchant for staring at women. Drinking would have been grounds for revoking his probation. But he was never arrested.

He spent 10 years incarcerated for a 1991 rape and was serving 10 years on probation when Ewing was attacked.

Ledford’s mother and brother did everything they could do to keep women safe.  And when their warnings went unheeded, and Ledford came home covered in blood, they called the police and turned him in.

Not so with the mother of Jonathan Redding, the teen charged in the killing of bartender John Henderson.  Redding’s family released a statement this week:

[Jonathan Redding] is not the monster that he has been portrayed to be but was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jonathan has strong family values and ties, and we feel he is currently a victim of the judicial system.

The wrong place at the wrong time.

Now defense lawyers in the Silver Comet Trail trial are trying to argue that Ledford is a victim of gender discrimination:

Sixteen people — 12 jurors and four alternates —were seated Friday to hear the Paulding County death penalty case against Michael Ledford, charged with murdering a Sandy Springs woman biking the popular Silver Comet Trail. . . .

The jury is dominated by men — only four women were among the 16 chosen as jurors or alternates — so Ledford’s attorneys filed a motion accusing prosecutors of gender bias because they struck so many women.

This type of thing would be laughable if it were not so costly.  Our trial system has become a joke, with the courts tilted so far towards the defense that every trial is a chilling reminder of how easy it is for murderers and rapists to walk free.

* * *

Meanwhile, in DeKalb County, a story that fell off the radar deserves a second look.  WSB-TV was the only news source that looked into this case:

Officer Accused of Exchanging Threatening E-Mails With Teen

DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. — Officials with the DeKalb Police Department said a 15-year veteran of their department and an 18-year-old girl were exchanging e-mails that threatened her family.

Channel 2 Action News reporter Amanda Rosseter spent the day digging through the officer’s personnel file and she found two offenses of conduct unbecoming – both within the past four months, and both over contact and e-mails with teenage girls.

DeKalb County police confirmed Kevin Sowell resigned two weeks ago after the department said it would fire him for two offenses – including a string of e-mails that threatened a young girl’s family.

Sowell was allowed to resign instead of being fired, and, according to WSB, as of April 24, no other action had been taken regarding his possibly criminal conduct:

The first offense allegedly took place in January. Sowell was suspended after he “developed a friendly relationship with a 16-year-old child,” according to officials. According to his file, after the girl’s parents requested that he discontinue contact, he continued with the child in person, by e-mail, and by a cell phone he purchased for her.

Just two months later, the second offense allegedly occurred. The internal affairs memo said, “The content of the messages was threatening in nature and spoke of violent acts towards the female’s parents” and said he “admitted to sending the correspondence.”

And another report noted, “They were both planning to harm her parents and sister-in-law. Instead of discouraging her, he responded in a manner that encouraged further thoughts on the act to harm.”

* * *

The Village Voice’s True Crime Report has some interesting commentary about George Zinkhan, the UGA marketing professor who murdered his wife and two others before killing himself.  According to True Crime, Zinkhan had a troubling history at University of Houston, serially harassing female students and junior faculty.  At the time Zinkhan came to UGA, he was the subject of a federal lawsuit at UH for “persistent sexual harassment.”  Apparently, this did not negatively affect UGA’s decision to hire him.  What a surprise.

* * *

Finally, yesterday, I received a copy of the full transcript from the indictment of Joshua Norris, the Morehouse student who emptied a gun into another Morehouse student and walked away with probation, apparently because the prosecutor got caught up in Judge Marvin Arrington’s otherwise admirable campaign to address the problem of crime among minority youth.

The transcript is in yesterday’s comments thread.  What is striking to me is the utter lack of attention to the crime itself — it seems that Arrington, and everyone else in the courtroom, have entirely forgotten that Norris is standing before them because he tried to commit murder, firing a gun six times outside a nightclub and striking the victim three times.

Judge Arrington and the prosecutor seem far more interested in debating the relative merits of different community service positions for Norris than addressing the law, or the crime.  The prosecutor, who is supposed to be representing the public, and the victim, apparently feels that it would be inappropriate for Norris to demean himself by picking up garbage with other probationers, because his is a special case:

Prosecutor Thompson: HE NEEDS TO BE IN SOME TYPE OF A PROGRAM WORKING WITH YOUNG PEOPLE.

Judge Arrington (?): WHAT DO YOU CALL THAT, CATHY, COMMUNITY SERVICE?

Staff Attorney: BIG SISTER AND BIG BROTHER?

Prosecutor Thompson: THERE’S 240 HOURS OF COMMUNITY SERVICE, AS PART OF THE PLEA, YOUR HONOR.

Judge Arrington:  NOW, MIZELL, I WANT YOU TO FIND A CONSTRUCTIVE PROGRAM FOR THIS YOUNG MAN. I DON’T WANT NO –

Mr. Mizell: THAT WON’T BE POSSIBLE WITH THE GEORGIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, YOUR HONOR.

Judge Arrington:  WHY?

Mr. Mizell: HE HAS TO DO THE COMMUNITY SERVICE THAT’S DIRECTED BY THE
GEORGIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS. I HAD -— THEY HAVE SOME ISSUES WITH PEOPLE DOING OTHER THINGS, OTHER THEN WHAT THE DEPARTMENT MANDATES.

Judge Arrington:  WHAT DO THEY MANDATE IN THIS PARTICULAR INSTANCE?

Mr. Mizell: HE WOULD DO IT, ACCORDING TO THE -— WHAT WE HAVE SET UP, NOW. AND THAT’S THEY PICK UP PAPER, THEY WORK IN SALVAGE PLACES, BASICALLY. ALTHOUGH, THERE HAVE BEEN INSTANCES –

Prosecutor Thompson: I WOULD LIKE FOR YOU TO REQUEST AND HIS LAWYER SEE IF WE CAN GET HIM OUT TO THE CAREY STEEL PITTS HOME THAT IS WORKING WITH YOUNG PEOPLE WHO DO NOT HAVE PARENTS. IT’S A FACILITY WHERE THEY CAN LIVE ON SITE AND THEY EAT THREE SQUARES A DAY. NINETY-EIGHT PERCENT OF THEM GO ON TO COLLEGE. . . . IT’S A GREAT PROGRAM.

Judge Arrington (?): I DON’T NEED NOBODY OUT THERE PICKING UP SOME PAPER. MIZELL, YOU AND I CAN DO THAT ON SATURDAYS, PICK UP SOME PAPER. BUT I’D LIKE TO — WHO IS THE DIRECTOR OF YOUR PROGRAM, YOUR YOUTH PROGRAM?

Mr. Mizell: I BELIEVE THE PROGRAM, THE REGIONAL CIRCUIT TEAM, IS S.G.

Judge Arrington: WHERE IS SHE LOCATED?

Mr. Mizell: SHE IS LOCATED IN THIS BUILDING. . . .

Judge Arrington: YOU THINK IT’S POSSIBLE I CAN GET HER UP HERE? YOU ACT LIKE YOU’RE SCARED?

Mr. Mizell: NOT LIKELY, SIR.

Prosecutor Thompson: YEAH.

Mr. Mizell: NOT LIKELY.

Judge Arrington: WHY NOT?

Mr. Mizell: I CAN PASS THAT MESSAGE ON TO HER.

Prosecutor Thompson: HE NEEDS TO BE IN A PROGRAM THAT HAS SOME SUBSTANCE, SOME MEAT.

There is so much that is wrong with this, it is difficult to know where to begin.  But setting aside the appalling spectacle of a prosecutor buddying up with a murder defendant, talking about how ordinary community service is simply below his dignity, and the judge buddying up with a murder defendant, playing the “stay in school, son” game, and the absolute erasure of the victim from this entire process, there is a little matter of the law.

The victim stated that he was not informed of this deal and not permitted to make a statement in court.  Statements made by the defense attorney in this hearing support the victim’s claim, because the defense attorney himself seems surprised that Prosecutor Thompson has offered only community service, and not prison time, for the attempted murder:

Defense Attorney Brian Steel: ON BEHALF OF MR. NORRIS. FIRST, I WOULD LIKE TO THANK THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY. WHEN WE CAME HERE TODAY, IT WAS A PRISON OFFER. I HEARD WHAT HE SAID, AND I WANT TO THANK HIM. I, ALSO, WANT THE COURT TO KNOW THAT MR. NORRIS IS AN EXTREMELY BRIGHT YOUNG MAN.

And the crown goes to: Mr. Georgia, Joshua Norris.

So what happened in the courtroom is the prosecutor broke the law.  And then Judge Arrington seconded the breaking of the law.  And nobody in that room spoke up and reminded these people that the (absurdly low) minimum mandatory sentence for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon is one year in prison, which Arrington mentioned in the reading of the charges, then ignored.  This is why legislatures have to pass minimum mandatory sentences.  But what good is the law if the judge ignores it?

What a joke.  What a travesty.

Georgia also has a victim’s rights law.  This law provides the following rights, clearly denied to Joshua Norris’ victim:

  • To be notified of each stage in the judicial process to include pretrial hearings, bond, arraignment, motions hearings, pleas of guilty, trial, sentencing and appeals
  • To be notified of any arrest, release, possibility of release, or escape of the accused or any change in custodial status
  • To give opinions regarding release from custody or bond issues
  • To have access to a private waiting area during court proceedings
  • To offer input on plea negotiations or sentence hearings or conditions

What on earth is happening in the Fulton County Superior Court?  Can crime victims sue the state for denying them their legal rights?  This victim ought to try.

Five Ugly Pieces, Part 4: Britteny Turman, Grace Dixon, and Frank Rashad Johnson Denied Justice in Atlanta

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On Sunday, May 10, the Atlanta Journal Constitution published an article by Bill Torpy that raises troubling questions about what is going on in Atlanta’s courtrooms.  Like this April 10 story by Steve Visser, Torpy’s story focuses on an element of the justice system that receives less attention than policing but is arguably far more responsible for the presence of dangerous felons on Atlanta’s streets: the choices, both legal and administrative, made by Atlanta’s judges.

We invest judges with extraordinary power.  We allow judicial discretion in all sorts of sentencing and administrative decisions.  Legislators have tried to limit judges’ discretion in recent years by imposing minimum mandatory sentence guidelines and repeat offender laws.  But Georgia’s sentencing guidelines still give judges far too much latitude to let criminals go free.  Also, far too many judges have responded to this legislative oversight (aka, the will of the people) by simply ignoring the intent, and even the letter, of those laws.

Not long ago, I was sitting in a Tampa courtroom listening to a request to overturn a particularly egregious lapse in judicial discretion in the case of Richard Chotiner.  Chotiner is a former nurse who used his status as a caregiver to sexually assault a developmentally disabled young man.  He was convicted of the crime and sentenced to fifteen years behind bars.  Then the judge let him go, to wait out his appeals as a free man.  To say that this decision was unusual is an understatement; nonetheless, facing criticism, the judge dug in.  Next, he allowed Chotiner to remove his ankle monitor on some trumped-up claim of needing to undergo physical therapy, and then refused to require Chotiner to put the monitor back on after the “therapy” was completed.  It’s hard to see the judge’s decision to remove the ankle monitor as anything other than a petulant reaction to being criticized in the first place.

In other words, this judge decided that his ego was more important than the victim’s peace of mind, public safety, or justice itself.  And when another judge was called upon to re-evaluate the first judge’s lack of judgment, Judge Number Two said that while he would not have let Chotiner go, he certainly was not going to second-guess the brillant legal mind of his esteemed colleague, etc. etc. etc.

Chotiner is still on the loose, though Judge Number Two actually did second-guess Judge Number One’s decision to remove his ankle monitor and ordered it put back on.  I suppose we weren’t supposed to notice that logical inconsistency while swooning in abject gratitude that one of these Apollonian deities had deigned to throw a few scraps the victim’s way.

Now, thanks to Bill Torpy’s article, Atlantans can watch a similar Olympian battle of wills not unfold in the Fulton Superior Court.  Expect other judges not to act to rein in the behavior of Judge Marvin Arrington, who once again completely forgot that he isn’t yet presiding over a fake television courtroom.  Expect the chief justice to not speak out in the face of yet another miscarriage of justice, and to not look into the chain of events that put yet another attempted murderer back on Atlanta’s streets.  They are, after all, judges.  The rest of us should mind our place.

This time, Arrington released a violent criminal who shot a fellow Morehouse student three times with a handgun.  He then treated the court to another episode of what goes on in his mind, saying:

[The attempted murderer] needs to have a curfew. He needs to be in a dorm where you can get some study time. Take organic chemistry and physics. Make him some A’s . . . All of them got cars.  Don’t need no dern car. They need a MARTA card.”

Let me attempt to summarize.  If you have repeatedly shot a person with a handgun, what you need to do is not go to jail, but study more and take public transportation.  That should fix it.

Just like the judge who wouldn’t judge another judge in Tampa, Arrington did feign some harsh words for the defense.  He actually cut the defense attorney off in mid-sentence (!), declaring:

“No more excuses. He doesn’t have any reason to give for not being successful.

“Where is the mama?

“Better put your arms around him and make sure he goes in the right direction. If he comes back here, I’m going to put him in jail. J-A-I-L.”

Then, after spelling out the word J-A-I-L in harsh tones for emphasis, Arrington let Joshua Brandon Norris go free.

OK, I’m not being completely fair to Marvin Arrington. As Torpy’s article explains, an inexperienced prosecutor, and thus the prosecutor’s boss, D.A. Paul Howard, agreed to the crazy plea deal in this case (Allowing a plea in a case of attempted murder means that the sentencing law needs to be changed.  Or, conversely, enforced, with penalties accruing to judges who fail to follow the law).  But regardless of the prosecutor’s actions, it is still Arrington’s courtroom.

Of course, there were reports of other crimes by Norris.  Serious ones.  Like, gun stuff.  Like grinding a bar glass into a girlfriend’s face.  Such things are apparently meaningless, however, in the halls of the bizarro-world of the Fulton Superior Court, where shooting somebody gets you sent to study hall, and aiming a gun at two women gets you — well, nothing.  Here is Torpy’s article.  I’ve quoted from it extensively because it is important — please go to the website and read the whole thing:

Tale of two students with a twist
Shooting victim won’t be Morehouse Man, but suspect to earn degree.

By Bill Torpy
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Sunday, May 10, 2009

Joshua Brandon Norris is expected to graduate soon and become a Morehouse Man, with all its prestige. At 22, he’s had a good run during his time at Morehouse College. He drove a Hummer, co-owned a fashion store at Perimeter Mall and owns a stylish $450,000 townhouse.

He also shot another student.

Quite a lifestyle for someone whose dad is a cop in Nashville (see below).  That must be some clothing store.

Across the country, Frank Rashad Johnson, the victim, attends Sacramento City College and lives with his mother, trying to save money. He, too, wanted to be a Morehouse Man.

“My great-uncle was a classmate of Martin Luther King’s,” Johnson said. “It has a long history of exemplary students and good men. It was my dream school.”

But all that fell apart when he was shot three times outside a school-related Halloween party near Atlantic Station in 2007. Police reports say Norris was kicked out of a nightclub, had words with Johnson after bumping into him outside, then shot the fellow Morehouse student during a struggle in the street.

Pause on this for a moment.  One shot, two shots, three shots, six shots in all.  In a public place.

Completing a Morehouse degree is vital to Norris. Fulton County Judge Marvin Arrington ordered him to do so after he pleaded no contest to a charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. The deal calls for six years of probation and comes with first-offender status —- meaning Norris’ record will be wiped clean if he stays out of trouble.

“You’re getting the break of your life,” Arrington said during the Jan. 27 hearing.

Arrington was accepting a plea offered by the prosecution and the defense.  But he could have done any one of a number of things.  Instead, he went off on his routine about staying in school, as if the situation were somehow not real, a pantomine, or an after-school special.  It’s crazy, how the courts have been hijacked by this type of foolishness.

The arrangement constitutes a bizarre twist of fate for Johnson.

“I sit at home, still recovering from my wound, painfully aware my Morehouse dreams have become a nightmare,” Johnson wrote to Fulton District Attorney Paul Howard after hearing about the deal. “My victimizer (and almost murderer) received a closeted, secretive, back-door slap on the wrist and is now back at Morehouse, moving forward with his educational aspirations without having paid any price for his crime.”

This is the person who is not at Morehouse.  The president of Morehouse chose an attempted murderer over this young man, the victim of his crime.  Nice message to send, President Franklin.

[District Attorney Paul] Howard recently investigated how the case was handled after receiving questions from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I am uncomfortable with the quality of the prosecutorial services provided … in this matter,” Howard wrote the family. Reid Thompson, the prosecutor who cut the deal, resigned.

Howard surely must have approved the plea deal.  And so, this must be routine.  If the public cannot count on its prosecutors to demand justice, then they have no protection against violent criminals.

The case is an example of how a relatively new prosecutor got caught up in Arrington’s crusade to save young black men. Of an overworked department dealing with a hard-charging defense attorney. Of a victim not getting his just due in court. And, says Johnson’s family, of a young man once again escaping serious criminal charges.

I’d like to know more about how Arrington’s crusade to save young black men ended up with someone who tried to kill a young black man receiving a get-out-of-jail-free card for a serious, violent felony, while the actually endangered young black man who didn’t try to kill anybody got the shaft.

And nearly killed.  But it gets worse.

The deal came after Thompson, a former Fulton police lieutenant who became an attorney in 2005, heard Arrington’s up-by-your bootstraps message in court weeks earlier, according to a transcript of the hearing. Last year, Arrington removed whites from his courtroom to lecture black defendants on proper behavior.

“We’ve got this young man who’s coming back to Morehouse now, he’s close to graduation,” Thompson told Arrington. “Sending him to state prison for two years, I don’t think that would be in the state’s best interest. Hopefully, this will be the lesson he needs.”

This is the prosecutor speaking.  That’s insane.  He resigned?  He should return his salary.  But I imagine there will be a reward system in place for him in academia somewhere.  And why, precisely, was the choice between two years in prison or no time at all?  This was attempted murder, firing a weapon in a public place.  The Code of Georgia does not allow for “attainment of a college degree” as punishment for this crime:

Georgia Code, 16-5-21

(a) A person commits the offense of aggravated assault when he or she assaults:

(1) With intent to murder, to rape, or to rob;

(2) With a deadly weapon or with any object, device, or instrument which, when used offensively against a person, is likely to or actually does result in serious bodily injury; or

(3) A person or persons without legal justification by discharging a firearm from within a motor vehicle toward a person or persons.

(b) Except as provided in subsections (c) through (i) of this Code section, [not applicable] a person convicted of the offense of aggravated assault shall be punished by imprisonment for not less than one nor more than 20 years.

Can anyone explain to me how it is that Judge Arrington, and D.A. Paul Howard, agreed to quietly circumvent this law?  Why aren’t they resigning?  It really is time for new blood at the D.A.’s office.

[The victim, Frank Rashad] Johnson complains his voice remained silent during the hearing. Actually, not only was his voice absent, but a version opposite of what police reports said happened that night was presented. In the hearing, [Prosecutor] Thompson said [victim] Johnson was kicked out of the nightclub before a fight started outside. And the defense attorney picked up from there, telling the judge Johnson and his friends surrounded his client’s Hummer and threatened him.

But several police reports in the court file say it was Norris who was kicked out of the party, one that Johnson never entered. And the reports say Norris returned to his vehicle after arguing with Johnson, then drove back, slammed on his brakes and got out with a gun.

The prosecutor makes the defense’s case, contradicting police reports.

Meanwhile, back in the victim’s world:

Johnson said prosecutors repeatedly told him they were up against a “prestigious” attorney. “I think they were intimidated by him,” he said. “It infuriates me I was never able to give anyone my sense of outrage or my story.”

Here are the details of the crime.  I also doubt it’s the only such case in the Fulton courts.  If you’re searching for the reason why innocent people keep getting killed in Atlanta, here it is:

According to police reports, witnesses said the events of Oct. 31, 2007, unfolded this way:

Norris and his girlfriend were escorted out of a Halloween party at LITKitchen. Norris bumped into Johnson, who was waiting outside. The two exchanged words and Norris walked to his Hummer, drove back and screeched to a halt —- a point nearly every witness mentioned.

Witnesses said Norris jumped out and pushed the gun at Johnson’s face. Johnson struggled with Norris as he fired at least six shots. Three bullets hit Johnson in the leg. Norris fled.

Norris turned himself in a week later after conferring with a lawyer and was released on bond.

Norris’ identity was known.  Why did it take a week to get him?  Was he hiding?  Was his father, a Nashville cop, involved in hiding him?  And since he was on the run for a week, why the hell did a judge let him free on bond, instead of holding him to make sure he didn’t run again?

Who, precisely, let Norris bond out?  To do this:

Eight months passed, and then last summer, Fulton prosecutors moved to revoke Norris’ bond after learning he was accused of smashing a glass in his ex-girlfriend’s face at a Nashville bar. She received severe cuts in her forehead requiring eight inches of stitches, police reports said.

The victim’s aunt, Kelly Carr, told police “when she went to the ER her niece told her Brandon had done this to me.” The aunt also said, “the victim is scared of the suspect because he is out on bond for attempted homicide” and Norris’ stepfather, Daniel Turner, a Nashville cop, “pulled her from the room and said his son, wanted to see/speak with [the victim].”

An officer reported this to internal affairs, which investigated and cleared Turner. The victim was “completely uncooperative,” Nashville police reported.

The victim was scared out of her mind.  And why not?  It’s not as if anybody was protecting her.  Only people like Norris get protection from this system.  Victims learn to shut up.

During Norris’ bond revocation hearing in Fulton last August, the woman testified she was cut when a fight broke out in the Nashville bar while she walked toward Norris’ table. He was cut in the hand in the same fight, according to testimony. Prosecutors later dropped the matter.

Which prosecutor dropped the matter?  What is happening in Paul Howard’s office?  The scariest part is that this level of dysfunction cannot be unique.

How many Joshua Brandon Norrises are walking Atlanta’s streets?  Why isn’t Paul Howard screaming from the rooftops for more resources, if things have gotten so bad that he does not ever try to put attempted murderers away?  Why isn’t the Mayor helping him?  Why isn’t the Chief of Police?  Why aren’t they standing in the city council, and the county commission, and the state legislature, every single day, pleading for the resources to keep killers off the streets?

But in the end, the decision gets made by the sitting judge: Marvin Arrington.  And then his peers do what judges do when other judges fail to enforce the law: they do nothing.

Of course, there’s more:

In another case in Fulton court files, Clark Atlanta University students Britteny Turman and Grace Dixon say Norris pulled a gun on them during a traffic dispute near Morehouse in November 2005. The women, in recent interviews, said Norris screamed profanities and followed them in their car for several blocks.

“He was laughing like it was funny when [he waved his gun and] we both ducked,” Turman said.

“I don’t understand why he didn’t get kicked out of Morehouse,” Dixon said. “He shouldn’t have been there to do this to somebody else.”

The two say they heard no follow-up from Fulton solicitors. Morehouse officials declined to answer questions about Norris.

In fairness, Marvin Arrington never said anything about saving young women.

Asked about Norris’ plea deal in the shooting, Arrington said he has “close to 100 cases a week” and doesn’t remember it. But he recalled the Nashville assault case when Norris came before him during the plea hearing.

“This is the young man who was whipping a young lady?” the judge asked.

Then he let him go.  Told ’em to study hard.

Johnson [the shooting victim] last month got a letter from Morehouse President Robert M. Franklin after the Johnson family repeatedly contacted the college after the plea deal.

Franklin suggested Johnson return. “Your matriculation would be a wonderful triumph over adversity,” he wrote.

Johnson aspired to becoming a Morehouse Man, as have three generations of relatives. But he has soured on that.

“Honestly, I don’t want to do that; I don’t feel safe there,” he said. “The situation is all backward to me.”

Is anything stopping Paul Howard from prosecuting Norris for his armed attack on Britteny Turman and Grace Dixon?

When the judge in Tampa let Richard Chotiner walk away from a sexual assault conviction, television host Bill O’Reilly stepped in to protest Chotiner’s release.  I hope that O’Reilly would be similarly interested in the release of Joshua Brandon Norris, and the grotesquely raw deal delivered to his victims, Britteny Turman, Grace Dixon, and Frank Rashad Johnson.  They have a right to justice.

Bloody Outrage: Another Murder That Could Have Been Prevented — Updated

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CORRECTION TO THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE:  A reader informed me that the names of judges currently presiding over a court division in Florida attach to previous cases from that division — therefore, the judge listed online may not be the same judge who meted out a previous sentence in that division.  I have corrected the following story to reflect this.

Why this happens is another issue.  There ought to be real transparency in court proceedings, and it shouldn’t require a trip to the courthouse or a phone call to sometimes-unresponsive clerks to discover how a particular judge ruled on a particular case — who let a sex assailant and child abuser go free, to kill another victim, for instance.

Corrections are underlined.  If anyone can provide the names of these judges, please let me know.  I can’t access the dockets — although I pay these judges’ salaries, and so do you.

In the St. Petersburg Times this morning:

Sex offender accused of pregnant St. Petersburg teen’s death

Polk County Sheriff’s deputies have arrested a 36-year-old St. Petersburg man for the murder of a pregnant teen whose body was found Monday in Davenport.

Aurelio Martinez, (left) a registered sex offender, was arrested at about 7 a.m. on a second degree murder charge for the killing of 17-year-old Bria Metz.

I looked up Martinez’ sex offender record. In October, 1997, in Dade County (Miami), Martinez was convicted of burglary with assault and battery and sexual battery. He was also convicted of probation violation because he was on probation at the time of the attack.

Serious stuff, right? Burglary, assault and battery, sexual assault? So what did the presiding judge do? He or she sentenced him to probation. Probation for burglary, assault, a sex crime, and violating probation.

I guess the judge figured Martinez was getting good at probation. He’d been been on it for so long.

There’s a problem, though: the judge was not supposed to sentence Martinez to probation for these crimes. There’s another problem, too. Because some judge let Martinez go, probably in violation of Florida sentencing law, Martinez was free to commit felony child abuse with injury to the child in 2003.

In November, 2003, in Hollywood, Florida (Broward County), Aurelio Martinez and Amy Andrea Young were charged with child abuse, presumably of Ms. Young’s child. Police actually filed two charges against Martinez: felony child abuse and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Judge Carlos Rodriguez presided, the weapons charge apparently disappeared (of course), and Martinez was sentenced to three years in prison.

Here is where it gets confusing, at least from what can be seen on-line. The child abuse and assault with a deadly weapon crimes were committed on 11/2003. Martinez was sentenced in 7/2005, twenty months later. Was he in prison during that time? Or was he on probation again, until he violated that probation as well? Broward County wants me to pay for access to that part of the website — the charge is five dollars simply to find out Martinez’s sentence. That’s nuts.

[Note to Howard C. Forman, Clerk of Courts, Broward County: I already pay for that website. It’s called taxes.]

My guess is that Martinez was in jail awaiting sentencing. It would be nice to think so — nice to think that the judge hadn’t given him probation again, for beating a child. In any case, he entered the state prison system in 7/2005 and got out 25 months later, which is either two years behind bars or nearly four years behind bars, depending on what happened in 2004.

In 2006, during the time he was in prison, he was also sentenced to one year and three months in the 1997 “burglary/assault-and-battery/sexual assault” charge in Dade County. Maybe he was going to get out early from the child abuse charge, and they finally decided to give him some time for “burglary/assault-and-battery/sexual assault/parole violation.” Or maybe it took them several months to figure out that he was on probation in another county for serious felony charges.

If they did decide to give him a bit of time for the sexual assault, finally, it wasn’t much, and it was served concurrently with the felony child abuse sentence.

Are you enraged yet? I’m enraged. Probation for a sex crime, even after violating probation, and then less than two years for the sex crime after his probation was revoked because he’d violated probation a third time and committed felony violence against a child, and he still didn’t even serve all of that sentence? Do we have absolutely no standards? And still, the academicians and activists and the Pew Foundation whimper:

“We’ve got too many people behind bars. We’re a fascist state.”

But, of course, it gets worse.

Let’s start at the beginning. Only, we can’t do that, because juvenile records are sealed. Oh, well. Aurelio Martinez’s first adult charge, unsurprisingly, occurred months after his 18th birthday. Funny how that happens: I wonder what he was doing before he aged out of juvenile. The 1991 charge was for loitering and resisting arrest. It was dropped. Whatever. It didn’t take long for Martinez to get into serious trouble. In 1994, he was convicted of felony burglary, felony grand theft, felony possession of burglary tools, and carrying a concealed weapon.

You know where this is going. Three felony convictions? Probation, of course. Some judge let him go. One year of probation, starting 12/15/94. What was this judge thinking? What is he thinking today, after the murder?

Another charge against Martinez was decided by the judge that day — it has a different case number and different filing date. I’m not sure if it is a totally separate offense. In any case, felony armed burglary in that case was dropped (thank you, plea bargains), felony cocaine possession and concealed weapon charges were disposed with probation, and probation violation was disposed with terminating probation. But at the end of the day, Martinez walked out of court on probation anyway.

Get it?

“But we’re a fascist state. We’re so hard on criminals.”

Imagine being the police officer who had to arrest Martinez, knowing full well he was armed, that he had used weapons, that he had a record.

Imagine being the social worker walking into his home a few years later to try to rescue a child. We send unarmed child protection workers into homes where there are armed felons. We expect unarmed child protection workers to challenge the authority of armed felons.

“But we’re a fascist state.”

Nobody asks judges to do what we ask of unarmed child protection workers and police officers. Perhaps if we asked them to confront the violent people they send back into the community in the communities they send them to, sentencing patterns would change.

What is the matter with our judges? In this case, it looks very much like at least one judge broke the law. But even if he didn’t — even if there was some loophole that permitted that judge to let Martinez walk free — why, in his judgment, did that seem like the right thing to do? How does any judge justify putting armed felons back on the streets, with no time served?

If no judge broke the law in releasing Martinez, clearly there are still problems with our repeat offender laws and minimum mandatory laws that need to be resolved by the legislature.

Because we can’t trust judges to keep us safe.

At least Martinez had to register as a sex offender in 1998, an act that placed his DNA on record and reminded him that his DNA would be in the state database, so if he committed another sexual assault, he could be identified. How many rapes have sex offender registries prevented this way?

But this raises another enforcement issue: is anybody enforcing the sex offender registry laws? In 2001, in Broward County, Martinez violated the registry rules. Adjudication was withheld — in other words, nobody did anything. And then he brutalized a child.

The record so far:

  • 1991: Aurelio Martinez turns 18 and his subsequent crimes become public record.
  • 1994: A judge lets Martinez walk on a fistful of serious, felony charges, including armed burglary.
  • 1997: Another judge lets Martinez walk on even more serious, felony charges, including sexual assault, probation violation, burglary, concealed weapons.
  • 2005: Judge Carlos Rodriguez slaps Martinez on the wrist for felony child abuse charges, drops other weapons charges, and chooses to not use his authority to enhance Martinez’s sentence in any way, despite his record, the unadjudicated sex offender registry violation, and the other times he has violated probation by committing violent crimes.
  • 2007: Freed a few years later, Martinez violates probation again and flees.
  • 2009: By his own admission, Martinez murders pregnant, 17-year old Bria Metz by strangling her.

Another question: did anybody know that Martinez was in St. Petersburg? If so, why wasn’t he picked up before Metz died, but only afterwards? From today’s St. Pete Times:

Martinez, who is currently in the Pinellas County Jail on violation of probation stemming from a 2003 child abuse case, told detectives he was with Metz was at his home the night she disappeared.

Metz wanted money, Martinez told detectives, and he drove her to her grandmothers. The two argued about money and began fighting after Metz threatened to expose their relationship to law enforcement.

Martinez told detectives that he grabbed Metz’ neck and held her for three to five minutes.

Serial judicial leniency claims another life. Bria Metz joins Eugenia Calle, and how many other victims of murder, killed despite numerous chances to put their murderers away?

“Defendants Have the Right to Remain Silent. . . Victims Have the Right to be Heard”

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I found this quote on the website for the Larimer County, Colorado District Attorney’s office. It is a neat sentiment: well-intentioned, not overly ambitious. It is, in other words, a fitting description of the aims of victims’ rights laws.

It is also utterly untrue.

The “right to be heard” is not a right in the ordinary sense of the term. It is not actually enjoyed by the vast majority of crime victims. There is no criminal court where victims may go to plead with authorities to take up their case, if theirs is one of the vast majority of crimes that go un-prosecuted for any one of a hundred reasons.

Other than murder, there is far less than a guarantee that even serious crimes will be taken up by the court. And prosecution rates for murder are far less than most people would imagine: authorities in Houston last week announced that they were stepping up efforts to “do something” about 600 murder cases that had foundered despite identifying a suspect:

More than 600 accused killers from the past four decades have yet to see the inside of a Harris County courtroom for their crimes, according to the Harris County district attorney’s office.

Records show that a handful of those jumped bail, fleeing the area before they could be prosecuted. But most were suspects who were never arrested, said Assistant District Attorney Russell Turbeville. . .

The push to find the fugitives was sparked in part by the case of Tho Minh Quach, who was charged with murdering his neighbor more than 20 years ago, but who disappeared and now will never stand trial because investigators did not try hard enough to find him.

One county, forty years, six hundred un-prosecuted murder suspects. How can this be?

In reality, virtually all crimes result in nobody being held accountable, a situation that has taken an extraordinary toll on hundreds of millions (yes, hundreds of millions) of crime victims since criminologist Milton S. Eisenhower lamented the 1 1/2% incarceration-for-crime rate in 1969. Here is Eisenhower speaking in 1970, twenty-two years before crime rates peaked in the early 1990’s:

There remains one very obvious reason for mounting crime in our society: the increasing failure of law enforcement agencies to cope with it. Consider the grim statistics. Probably 10 million serious crimes were committed in the United States last year. About half of these crimes were never reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Only 12 percent of those 10 million crimes resulted in the arrest of anyone. Only 6 percent resulted in the conviction of anyone, and this 6 percent included many pleas to lesser offenses. Only 1 1/2 percent resulted in the incarceration of anyone. And of those who were incarcerated, most will return to prison another time for additional offenses. As Lloyd Cutler . . . remarked on these statistics: ‘It would be hard to say that crime does not pay. The sad fact is that our criminal justice system, as presently operated, does not deter, does not detect, does not convict, and does not correct.’ (Violence: The Crisis of American Confidence, ed. Hugh David Graham, Johns Hopkins Press, 1971)

Hundreds of millions of victims of unresolved crimes walk the streets, and yet, virtually nobody, not even a fraction of a percent, resorts to vigilantism — this despite hysterical claims by mostly-liberal commentators that we must remain vigilant to hold back the horrifying threat posed to society by emotionally wounded, vengeful victims of crime.

I have long wondered why it is that so many people to the left of the political center despise and fear victims so much more than they despise or fear criminals themselves. Self-loathing, I think lies at the root of this phenomenon, self-loathing busked up by education at the hands of other self-loathing people who are entirely convinced that our justice system is over-reaching and cruel.

To say that the types of statistics mentioned above do not enter into classroom discussions of justice is to wildly understate the case. The only type of literature taken seriously in the classroom is the literature of the wrongly accused (too numerous to mention), or rightfully-accused-but-persecuted-anyway (Orestes, Oedipus Rex, The Crucible, The Stranger, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Clockwork Orange: how the mighty have fallen).

There is also the litmus test, administered with fierce regularity, that one must show the right type and quantity of empathy for criminals before you may speak about criminal justice at all. This is the price of the ticket — no similar admission fee exists regarding victims, save a few politically sanctioned types.

In the face of such orthodoxy, or rather, repression of facts, perhaps it isn’t surprising that so many people agree, with so very little evidence, that crime victims are too powerful, when they are actually legally powerless.

The exception to this powerlessness, now, consists of being allowed to offer a victim impact statement after the accused has been found guilty of the crime, during the time when his representatives may plead for lenience from the judge. Even this right, however, is strongly opposed by those who feel that the presence of victims in courtrooms represents a sort of perversion of pure justice. Character witnesses for the convict, such people argue, are only right, to keep the vengeful passions of the public in check, but character witnesses against them are — just awful.

When victim advocates began pushing for Victims’ Rights Laws in the 1980’s, reaction was extreme. These laws were written to provide extremely limited rights to the small fraction of victims whose cases actually made it into a courtroom, including the right to be notified about hearings, the right to be notified when one’s offender is up for parole or is being released, and the right to make a victim impact statement before the judge. Victims’ rights laws do not in any way impede on the vast rights afforded defendants before, during and after prosecution: in fact, their modesty underscores the degree to which victims have fewer rights than the public itself, let alone criminals.

Nevertheless, defense attorneys, law professors, and editorial writers (defenseattorneyslawprofessorseditorialwriters) behaved as if granting victims even extremely limited rights to speak in the sentencing phase of the judicial process was tantamount to bringing back witch-burnings, fueled, of course, with trampled copies of the Bill of Rights.

Tom Teepen, a nationally syndicated columnist based in Atlanta, compared the 1999 Victims Rights Amendment to a murderer stalking an innocent and endangered United States Constitution: “The Constitution has just ducked another bullet, but beware the ricochet”; “You can’t be sure this monster won’t walk again,” he wrote, and, nastily:

You almost have to feel sorry for the politicians working the law-and-order hustle. Crime has been falling sharply for several years. . . It is, in short, getting hard to sell criminals to the electorate.

This, in a year when there were 15,000 murders, 90,000 reported rapes, and nearly a million aggravated assaults.

Teepen never writes about criminals with such sneering contempt. His colleague, Cynthia Tucker, has written movingly about crime victimization at other times, but she called the Victims’ Rights Amendment “a crime in itself,” and accused victims of wanting too much:

The system has already kicked in on behalf of the victim — conducting an investigation, arresting a suspect, proceeding to take the suspect to trial.

Gee, thanks. Except when it doesn’t, which is nearly all of the time.

Tucker went on to accuse all politicians who speak up for victims of “pandering” to society’s hatefulness, prejudice, and barely-suppressed violence, then accused the public directly of wishing to undermine all rights of the accused. That the public, let alone victims, might be innocent of nefarious intentions until proven guilty is not the way this game gets played:

This latest bit of pandering by the vice president [Gore] is disgusting but not surprising. It has become an article of faith among centrist Democrats that a tough law-and-order stance in essential to win elections. . . . As hard as it is for most Americans to accept, a suspect is innocent of a crime until convicted by a jury of his peers (or until he pleads guilty).

In twenty years of advocating for and working with crime victims, I have never met a victim who wanted to undermine the justice system or see the wrong person go to jail for a crime. Such accusations are sheer hysteria, and like most hysteria, they arise from a reality that is inverse to the charge.

Mission Creep: Burglars With Drug Problems. And Drug Courts With Burglar Problems. And Reporters With Truthiness Problems.

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Atlanta is not the only city where recidivists with long records of serious crime are being permitted to avoid jail sentences because they are also drug addicts. From the Ithaca Journal, Ithaca, New York:

In a plea deal with prosecutors, a Groton woman charged with taking part in burglaries in three counties has been sentenced to time served, five years probation and ordered to attend drug court for local crimes.

Judge John Rowley sentenced Julianna Salerno, 30, on Friday after she pleaded guilty to third-degree burglary in Tompkins County Court. Salerno admitted that she waited in a vehicle and “acted as a lookout” for Daniel Samson, 25, of Groton, when he broke in and stole items from a building at Treman State Park.

Salerno and Samson were charged with six counts of third-degree burglary, four counts of third-degree criminal mischief, and petit larceny, a misdemeanor. . .

They were also linked to Cortland County burglaries at the Greek Peak Ski Resort and Hope Lake, and Cayuga County burglaries at Salmon Creek Sports, Grisamore Farms, Badman’s Bushel Baskets Produce, Ron’s Corner Store, Triangle Restaurant and Longpoint State Park, according to law-enforcement officials. [Ithaca Journal, “Groton Woman Receives Sentence,” 4/27/09, fee for viewing]

More than a dozen burglaries, and this woman is being offered probation and community-based treatment, instead of conviction and incarceration, because she has a drug problem. This type of story, which plays out every day, severely challenges the conventional wisdom that our prisons are stuffed with otherwise innocent drug addicts serving long sentences for merely possessing drugs. Claims that prison populations have expanded because states are locking up mere addicts are not true either, as this chart on inmates from the Department of Justice clearly shows:

The problem, again, is lenient judges, not to mention a system so steeped in anti-incarceration ideology that the mere idea that someone might expect to go to prison for committing a dozen burglaries can no longer even be taken for granted. The judge who sentenced Salerno apparently felt the need to say out loud that there was some possibility that she might go to jail despite her addiction:

While acknowledging Salerno’s actions may have been a “drug-related crime spree,” Rowley told her that she’ll be facing incarceration if she doesn’t adhere to her probation terms and treatment programs.

In other words, Salerno was permitted to get away with at least a dozen crimes against others, but if she messes up in rehab, a crime against herself, then the state might decide get serious with her. Is it any wonder that people have a hard time believing that the justice system is there to protect the rights of anyone except criminals?

Drug courts were never supposed to be used as a get-out-of-jail-free card for people with long offense records. They were supposed to be used to divert first-time offenders whose primary offense was drug-related. But even the term “drug-related” has been twisted: now, apparently, any crime committed by a drug addict is “drug-related,” as the judge in the case above above uses the term.

Another example of abusing both the concept of drug courts and the concept of “drug-related” crime, from the Baltimore Sun — note the reporter’s empathy for the criminal, and his disturbing efforts to downplay his crimes:

Break-In Artist Finally Gets Into Drug Program

Peter Hermann | Baltimore Crime Beat

Michael D. Sydnor Jr. is finally getting the help that he needs.

This is no small accomplishment, as District Judge George M. Lipman made cle[a]r when he learned that the drug-addicted defendant suspected of fueling a plague of car break-ins in downtown Baltimore had been accepted into an inpatient treatment program.

“Hallelujah,” the judge said, a pronouncement not often heard from the bench, and certainly not from this jurist, who apologized several times for being too preachy during Friday morning’s docket at the Hargrove District Court in South Baltimore. He told one man, upset that being sent off to jail meant his car would be towed, “I don’t wipe people’s noses.”

No, the judge doesn’t wipe people’s noses, but that probably needs to be put into the record, just to be clear, because he otherwise plays head cheerleader for repeat felons, as does the reporter. The victims? Well, never mind them: insurance will cover their losses.

Here is reporter Peter Herman’s heart-wrenching account of the court’s efforts to “help” Syndor. Note the way Syndor’s crimes become “petty,” “nonviolent,” and things that “drive people crazy” in the reporter’s hands, as if he is writing about some kid bouncing a basketball against a curb, not a repeat felon breaking into people’s cars, actually committing violent crimes, and betraying an utterly frightening disregard for the law:

I first wrote about Sydnor back in February, painting the 40-year-old as the face of a problem that drives residents crazy and tourists out of the city. Day after day, police reports of car break-ins pile up from Federal Hill, around the Inner Harbor and to the far edges of Canton.

Cell phones used to be the prized catch, but now navigational devices, iPods and iPhones are all the rage, usually stolen by addicts seeking electronics to hawk for a quick buck to score a quick high, a never-ending cycle of car-to-needle-to-car that ends up costing us thousands upon thousands of dollars in increased insurance premiums, car window repairs and replacements for stolen items.

Sydnor is charged with breaking into two cars in January at a garage at 218 N. Charles St., and authorities tell me he’s suspected in other break-ins at garages at The Baltimore Sun and Mercy Medical Center on North Calvert Street. He has been in jail for the past three months awaiting word on a coveted, hard-to-get drug treatment slot, and his cases will be put on hold until he gets through the program.

Police have arrested Sydnor more than 100 times in the past 15 years and he’s been convicted dozens of times, mostly of seemingly petty, nonviolent offenses.

“Mostly of seemingly petty” offenses? What about the other ones? This isn’t journalism: it’s a mutual admiration club with three members: judge, reporter, and predator.

And these admiration clubs so frequently get out of hand, which is why I question one of the main tenets of drug court: that the judge and the offender form a relationship in which the judge takes a personal interest in the offender’s progress. Do we really need to be encouraging judges to be even more enamored of their “patriarchial/matriarchial” roles vis-a-vis criminals? Haven’t enough innocent victims of crime paid, with their lives, for these special moments of bonding, Hallelujahs, slap on the backs, and all?

Shouldn’t people like this be getting their drug and alcohol counseling in prison, as they’re serving time for their crimes?

Given how he reacted while sentencing Sydnor, the judge in this case might as well have been openly berating the public for its failure to leap to Sydnor’s aid by providing him with a bed, on demand, in a drug rehab center. Yet even a brief perusal of Sydnor’s incredibly long record indicates serial neglect on the part of Baltimore’s judiciary to protect the public from this man’s violence. In 1996, Sydnor was found guilty of assault (neither petty nor non-violent). Even though he refused to acknowledge his guilt and was found guilty, he was given only a suspended, one-year sentence — in other words, no time at all. He quickly ended up back in jail again, this time for second-degree assault, and received one year again, another example of judicial carelessness.

The record grows worse as time goes by. Drug dealing, narcotics dealing, felony theft. There are 147 separate court appearances in his record. Assault, second degree, in 2005, some 97 cases in? One month in jail. And this is what reporter Peter Hermann calls a non-violent, minor record? Have they lost their minds, or do they just despise the law-abiding public?

What do you call a 100+ time offender, appearing before Judge Lipman (who is, unsurprisingly, a former defense attorney)?

You call him a good candidate for drug court.

Breaking out the Bubbly: National Drug Court Month

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National Drug Court Month is just around the corner, so I am going to spend this week taking a closer look at some of the claims being made about the effectiveness of drug courts. By next week, the canned press releases will be seeping out all over the news in the form of stories lifted directly from the press kits provided by advocacy groups such as the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

Rather astonishingly, the NADCP press kit asserts that “for twenty years, drug courts have saved millions of lives.” Millions? Really? In New York State, which has one of the larger state drug court systems, only 20,400 people have graduated from drug court since the program began, and nobody can say how many of those people stayed sober for more than a few years after they left the scrutiny of the courts. No man is an island, but really — millions of lives?

I do not oppose very limited use of drug (and alcohol) treatment sentencing diversion, but there is a big difference between diverting first-time offenders into treatment programs and the runaway drug court system that exists today. Drug courts have become dumping grounds for all sorts of criminals — including serial offenders and people charged with multiple crimes.

The system is broken when criminal defendants know to say they want help for a substance abuse problem in order to avoid a jail sentence for some other crime. Such was the case with Johnny Dennard, the career criminal in Atlanta assigned to a community-based drug treatment program upon his sixth burglary conviction.

Dennard is precisely the type of person legislators had in mind when they tried to reign in judicial leniency towards repeat offenders. But the fact that he was permitted to walk free from a burglary conviction because he claimed to have a substance abuse problem is only one of the problems with drug courts. Another problem is the quality of the “community-based treatment programs” assigned to treat offenders like Dennard.

There is, of course, a money trail to all of this. When a judge decides that someone who has broken into a dozen houses needs treatment, not incarceration, he or she picks from a list of programs that charge the state to rehabilitate offenders. Some are well-run. Others are scams, often connected to small non-profit organizations and church ministries. Public oversight of the placement choices made by judges is practically nil — another casualty of the secrecy of the courts.

Many people are made happy by this process. The judge has saved the state prison system the cost of incarcerating the offender; the criminal has gotten away without prison time and maybe even cleaned himself up — temporarily — enough to get some fat on the bones; the “service providers” have pocketed some serious cash, and the academicians can write their next study on the efficacy of drug offender programs. Troublingly, some of these studies rely on self-reporting by the very ministers/outreach workers who are profiting from the rehabilitation programs that are being studied.

Everybody is happy, except the people with unnatural attachments to, say, not having their cars stolen and their homes invaded by junkies on a post-intervention-program tear.

About twenty years ago, fresh out of college with a charmingly ineffectual degree in Renaissance Poetry, I found myself accidentally providing rehab for addicts at one such program. To say the least, I had zero qualifications as a counselor, but my boss was getting paid by the federal government to supervise me as a VISTA “community outreach” worker, and he was getting paid (six figures) by the Department of Human Resources to provide “AIDS outreach to under-served populations,” and he was getting paid to provide “rehabilitation services” and “job training” and who knows what else –- many were the people billed for his time. Billing for services, however, is not the same as providing them, which was the primary lesson I learned from my stint with this man (the other being that many “services” serve nobody but the service provider).

Nowadays, when I read about this or that “outreach” program, the image that forms in my head is of a big hand reaching out to grab a bundle of cash.

In order to pretend to fulfill one of the program goals for one of the grants my boss was receiving, I was sent over to a medical center in southwest Atlanta to educate recovering addicts on sexually transmitted diseases: your tax dollars at work. The addicts, many of them prostitutes, were sleepily polite. They were also still high. Some of them were so high, they nodded and nearly fell out of their folding chairs as I went through the pyramid of risky behaviors, which read something like a daily planner for their lives: 9:00 a.m., give unprotected oral sex in a pickup truck; 10:30 a.m., share a needle in the shooting gallery. And so on.

I didn’t belong there, and neither did they, though I learned some skills I later applied while teaching indefinite pronouns in early-morning composition classes. For example, always make sure students are seated close enough to each other that they don’t fall all the way to the ground when they pass out.

But even though I didn’t belong there, somebody (not me – I made $6,000 a year as a VISTA, or domestic Peace Corps worker) was being paid handsomely to “rehabilitate” these poor, crazy drug addicts. I am certain that some of them would have had a better chance at recovery (not to mention personal safety) if they had been sent off to prison, where they would have had a slightly harder time getting drugs and a much better chance of being forced to attend real 12-step programs and real detox programs run by real professionals, not by some community activist who wrote a grant.

To say that community-based programs vary wildly in quality doesn’t scratch at the surface of what I experienced in my year as a VISTA, or what I saw in the neighborhood where Johnny Dennard was released to another program, and where a third church-based rehab has been plying its trade in some very strange ways for over a decade now. More on that tomorrow.

Jean Valjean, Selling Crack to Pay Child Support?

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The economy may be declining, but the marketplace of improbable claims is doing just fine. In this story from the New York Times, a neighborhood advocate in Columbia, South Carolina, claims that the bad economy is driving men to sell drugs in order to meet their child support obligations:

“Why can’t we get a step up in patrol?” asked Mary Myers, president of the tenant association at the Gable Oaks apartment complex in the northern part of the city, condemning what she says is a marked increase in drug dealing and gang-related violence in recent weeks.

“It’s going to get worse,” Ms. Myers said. “You’ve got guys who have kids, who are on the hook for child support. If selling drugs is the only way they can get the money, they’re going to do it.”

Hmmm, is this even a little bit true? Did the reporter identify even one person in all of South Carolina who used to have some legitimate job but has turned to the crack trade to make child support payments on time? Or is this just another example of the shockingly sloppy, ideology-driven naivety that defines Times reporting on crime?

People have been permanently banished from journalism for less than this. But when it comes to justifying the actions of criminals, the Times is so shameless that a sort of glazed-eyed credulity takes over their stories.

Nobody is entering the drug trade in order to make child support payments. Street dealers sell drugs in order to sustain their lifestyles, or at least those parts of their lifestyles not entirely subsidized by taxpayers. We pay the rent, utilities, food and medical care for their female relatives, children and girlfriends — and they crash with relatives or women they hook up with, on our dime, a lifestyle amply documented in Times reporter Jason DeParle’s very well-researched book, American Dream. We give them free utilities and rent, fistfuls of free bus tokens, pocketfuls of W.I.C. vouchers and food stamp credit cards — that often get traded for cash on the black market. So long as drug dealers don’t marry any of the women they live with, and so long as those women become single mothers, we pay the bills.

When drug dealers get sick, they go to the emergency room, and we pay for their medical care. When they go to prison, we pay for everything. When they have to appear in court, we pay for their lawyers, for the court costs, for our lawyers, for the judge, for the policeman who brought them in.

What do they pay for? Drugs. Stupid stuff. Electronics, cars, pricey clothes. That is the domestic economy of the street drug trade, not getting laid off from Thom McAn and hitting the streets so you don’t fail to make your next child support payment on time.

In fact, there has been absolutely no reduction in aid for people dependent on the government since the economic crisis began. People who didn’t pay to feed their own kids in the first place aren’t stealing televisions or selling drugs to feed them now.

In fairness, the Times reporter does float a few believable thoughts about the effect of the economy on crime control:

With the punishing economic downturn, police officers in many American cities are confronting what they describe as a surge in property crime. At the same time, many are being forced to improvise and make do with less: The recession is shrinking the finances of local governments, limiting the resources of police departments.

Fewer cops, furloughed prosecutors, and shuttered courtrooms equals more crime. And it’s entirely believable that some types of economic crime would increase as ordinarily employed people lose their jobs:

“When people get desperate, they’re going to feed their family,” said Sheriff Leon Lott of Richland County, whose jurisdiction includes parts of Columbia and its suburbs.

Sheriff Lott has noticed a pronounced increase in insurance fraud and credit card scams in recent months. “When you catch people and ask them why they did it, they’ll say: ‘I’m desperate. I can’t pay my bills.’ ”

Insurance fraud and credit card scams, I can believe. Selling crack to buy diapers (that your girlfriend is already getting free through W.I.C.)? Bunk.

Here is the real reason we can’t control crime, buried, oddly, in the article’s first paragraphs, before the familiar tune from Les Misérables begins to tinkle:

Sgt. E. M. Marsh peers into the darkness, through the rain-speckled windshield of his Chevy Impala police cruiser, and recognizes the sinewy man in the black stocking cap.

“I locked this guy up already,” he says, as his headlights flood the parking lot of an apartment complex north of downtown. “A year ago, he was breaking into every house in this neighborhood, stealing laptops, DVD players.”

Now he is back out in the world.

We can’t control crime because somebody can get caught “breaking into every house in the neighborhood” and still be out of jail within weeks, or months. Now why doesn’t the Times ever write about that?

Justice Delayed + Tax Dollars Wasted = Justice System Starved

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Apparently, while it may be hard to be a pimp, as the popular song goes, it isn’t particularly hard to be a defendant in a child molestation case:

DragonCon founder’s health might keep him from standing trial

Edward Kramer was charged in 2000 with molestation children

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Kramer, first arrested on Aug. 25, 2000, has been indicted on multiple felony charges of child molestation and aggravated child molestation.

He was under house arrest at home in Duluth until last year. Now he can travel but cannot have unsupervised contact with children under 16 and must report his whereabouts every week.

Heck, it isn’t even particularly hard to be a convicted offender — in this case, of a man whose victim was in his early twenties but is developmentally handicapped:

Hillsborough judge allows sex offender to go free during appeals process

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

TAMPA — Linda Petruzzi thought her nightmare was over when Senior Judge J. Rogers Padgett sentenced the man who molested her mentally disabled son to 15 years in prison.

But a day later, Richard Martin Chotiner walked out of jail.

The judge allowed the convicted sex offender to remain free on $50,000 bail while an appeals court considers his case, a process that typically takes months or years.

Chotiner, who was ordered to wear an electronic monitoring device for a time before his conviction, doesn’t have to wear anything to track his movements now.

The defense bar is derailing our justice system by forcing ever-broadening protections for defendants and convicts. By driving up the cost of getting cases to trial and then dealing with post-conviction appeals, they are stealing justice from the rest of us.

Many in the media are colluding in this crime. Inexplicably esteemed St. Petersburg Times columnist Daniel Ruth (whose crimes against the English language merit an entirely different set of felony charges) got away with a giant legal misrepresentation about the judge who let Chotiner walk after conviction, and the Times, which prides itself on possessing an entire institute of journalists ethics, didn’t even bother to correct him. Ruth wrote an editorial claiming, wrongly, that the judge was required by law to let Chotiner go free on bail after his conviction. Not true: the judge exercised his own “discretion” in releasing the Chotiner, and then he exercised his own discretion again in allowing him to remove his ankle monitor. But who cares? We’re talking about a convicted sex criminal here: empathy over facts, please.

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, Edward Kramer’s lawyers are playing a reprehensible game with the our tax dollars, trying to up the ante until the state can no longer justify the costs of trying Kramer on three counts of molestation:

An April 29 trial date was postponed Wednesday after Edward Kramer told Gwinnett County Superior Court Judge Karen Beyers he was uncertain he could stay awake and alert enough to assist in his own defense. A spinal injury makes it difficult to sit, stand or breathe, and he is chronic pain, he said. . . .

He’s accused of sexually abusing three teenage boys. The mother of two alleged victims, a former friend of Kramer’s, has said Kramer dazzled the boys with action figures, sci-fi memorabilia and celebrity connections. The boys told police that Kramer took advantage of them during sleepovers at his house. . . .

Kramer’s defense attorneys, Edwin Marger and former Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr, said that in order for the case to go forward, they will have to prove Kramer is physically competent to stand trial.

“He’s been going through this now for almost nine years and he wants to get it over with,” Marger said.

What is the “this” that Kramer is “going through” that has taken almost nine years? Nothing more than his own lawyers’ machinations to postpone the trial by subverting our justice system.

Pretty strange behavior for a Libertarian. I guess I missed those chapters in Atlas Shrugged where Ayn Rand instructs her acolytes on how to relentlessly milk claims of physical disability in order to postpone fact-finding.

Make that permanently postpone. According to Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter, Kramer’s attorneys may indeed succeed in their efforts to derail justice:

“For all this talk about ‘I want a trial,’ Ed Kramer really proved today that he didn’t want a trial because the court made the accommodation for him,” Porter said. “The only trial he wants is the one he controls.”

I hear from many people that Bob Barr is a nice person. Nevertheless, when the issue was handicapped people who weren’t also accused child molesters, he opposed the Americans With Disabilities Act. And here are some oddly jarring quotes from then-Representative Barr’s 1988 efforts to push through the impeachment of President Clinton:

The rule of law finds its highest and best embodiment in the absolute, unshakeable right each of us has to walk into a courtroom and demand the righting of a wrong. It doesn’t matter what color your skin is, what God you pray to, how large your bank account is, or what office you may hold. If you are an American citizen, no one can stand between you and your access to justice
No one, that is, except a libertarian representing an accused child molester by endlessly gaming the justice system, I suppose.

Lavelle McNutt: Another Serial Rapist Allowed to Walk the Streets of Atlanta

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Last week, I wrote about Lavelle McNutt, a serial rapist given many second chances. His Georgia Department of Corrections record is a record of something else, as well: our failure to imprison repeat offenders, even after the 1994 sentencing reform law was passed.

As the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported a few weeks ago, McNutt’s first adult rape conviction, for two separate rapes in New York State, occurred in 1976, just after he turned 18. When you see an 18-year old convicted of a serious offense, you have to wonder about the contents of his sealed juvenile record: 18-year olds don’t wake up one day, break into the first house they see, and rape the occupant. They usually start experimenting with sexual abuse early in adolescence, victimizing their siblings, peers, and other easy targets. How many children and young women had already been sexually assaulted by McNutt by the time he aged out of the juvenile system?

I believe those victims exist, and that unlike Lavelle McNutt, they were abandoned by society. There’s no way to sugarcoat it: the football coaches and college presidents who treated McNutt like a victim because he was a rapist abetted him in his crimes, thus sentencing his victims to a lifetime without justice.

The two rape victims in the New York State cases were also denied justice, only in a different way. McNutt was sentenced to a preposterously light term of five years for the two rapes. He served less than three years of that, and by 1979 he was a college student at Atlanta’s Morehouse University. Almost immediately, he was charged in another sexual assault, this time for aggravated sodomy. In May, 1979, he began serving a seven-year sentence for that crime. He got out in three years.

In 1982, Lavelle McNutt was 24 years old and already had three adult sexual assault convictions on his record. Two years later, he was convicted of aggravated assault in Clayton County. Was that a rape case, pled down to a non-sexual charge? He also had a burglary conviction in Fulton County, date unknown. Burglary and aggravated assault charges from the early 1980’s might very well have been rapes, or attempted rapes. Atlanta was notorious at that time for going easy on sex offenders — thanks largely to irresponsible jurors who rendered sex crime prosecutions almost impossible to win, regardless of the circumstances. An ugly contempt for victims of rape was the status quo in the courts. The malaise incited by public prejudices towards victims crashed the entire system, and Atlanta was a rapist’s paradise. And a victim’s nightmare. It would be very interesting to know more about those crimes.

In 1984, McNutt was sentenced to five years for the aggravated assault. Oddly, he did serve nearly all of that sentence, receiving only a few months off, probably for the time he was behind bars awaiting sentencing. This is another reason I suspect that the underlying crime was something more serious than aggravated assault. In any case, for five years the public was protected from him. Pre-sentencing reform, this was the best a prosecutor could do. In August, 1989, he was free again.

In 1992, McNutt was charged in Fulton County with the offense called “Peeping Tom.” Funny as that sounds, he was probably casing out a victim to rape or amusing himself between more serious attacks. He received three years for the Fulton crime and 12 months for a crime labeled “other misdemeanor” in Gwinnett County. He was out again two years later, in 1994.

Georgia’s sentencing reform law was passed in 1994. It was supposed to enhance sentencing for repeat offenders and extend sentences significantly for so-called “serious violent offenders.” But the law was passed with several default mechanisms that enabled judges to keep releasing repeat offenders onto the streets. Consider this language:

Except as otherwise provided in subsection (b) of this Code section, any person convicted of a felony offense in this state or having been convicted under the laws of any other state or of the United States of a crime which if committed within this state would be a felony and sentenced to confinement in a penal institution, who shall afterwards commit a felony punishable by confinement in a penal institution, shall be sentenced to undergo the longest period of time prescribed for the punishment of the subsequent offense of which he or she stands convicted, provided that, unless otherwise provided by law, the trial judge may, in his or her discretion, probate or suspend the maximum sentence prescribed for the offense [italics inserted]. (O.C.G.A. 17-10-7)

In other words, a criminal must be sentenced to the maximum penalty the second time he is convicted of a felony unless the judge decides to sentence him to something other than the maximum penalty, such as no time at all, as in the case of six-time home burglar Johnny Dennard. What is the point of a law like this? The point is that the criminal defense bar still controlled the Georgia Legislature in 1994, and other elected officials lacked the courage to stand up to them. The rest of the story is that too many judges betray disturbing pro-defendant biases, even when it comes to violent predators like Lavelle McNutt.

Nevertheless, other portions of the 1994 sentencing reform law did strengthen sentences for repeat offenders. In 1996, McNutt was charged with aggravated assault and stalking in Fulton County. Aggravated assault is not one of the “seven deadly sins” that trigger sentencing as a “serious violent felon” under the 1994 act: if it were, he would have been sentenced to life without parole due to his prior rape convictions.

Yet even as a “non-serious violent felon” repeat offender, McNutt was still required under the 1994 sentencing reform act to serve the entire sentence for his crimes. But he didn’t. He was sentenced to six years and served less than four. He walked into prison in January, 1997 and walked out again three and a half years later, in July of 2000. Even counting the time he may have spent cooling his heels in the Fulton County jail before being transferred to the state prison (or maybe not), he was out of prison four years and two months after the date of the crime for which he was sentenced to no less than six years behind bars, with no parole.

Here is the code section that restricts parole for four-time felons:

[A]ny person who, after having been convicted under the laws of this state for three felonies or having been convicted under the laws of any other state or of the United States of three crimes which if committed within this state would be felonies, commits a felony within this state other than a capital felony must, upon conviction for such fourth offense or for subsequent offenses, serve the maximum time provided in the sentence of the judge based upon such conviction and shall not be eligible for parole until the maximum sentence has been served. (from O.C.G.A. 17 -10-7)

Can anybody explain the fact that McNutt was granted parole? Who let him go early, apparently in direct violation of Georgia’s reformed sentencing law? Did the prosecutors fail to record his three prior felony convictions dating back to 1976 — two rapes (counted as one, unfortunately), aggravated sodomy, and the 1984 aggravated assault? Did the judge ignore the law of Georgia in sentencing McNutt? Did the Department of Corrections ignore the no-parole rule? Who is responsible?

For that matter, why didn’t the judge give McNutt a longer sentence in the first place? How could any judge look at the accumulated evidence of violently predatory sexual behavior, of repeat offenses rolling in after each brief incarceration, and not decide that it was his or her duty to protect the public for longer than six years? Does anybody on the criminal justice bench in Atlanta even contemplate public safety in sentencing?

Furthermore, why was McNutt charged with stalking and aggravated assault for the same incident? Was he actually attempting to commit a sexual assault? Could he have been charged with attempted sexual assault instead, a charge that would have triggered the life sentence (read: 14 years) as a serious violent felon and repeat offender? Was he permitted to plead to a charge that didn’t carry life imprisonment? Did the Fulton prosecutor’s office do everything it could do to keep McNutt off the streets, given his disturbing prior history and relentless sequence of serious crimes?

Also, was McNutt’s DNA checked before he was released from prison in 2000? Could other rapes have been solved, and charged, before he walked out of prison again? How many rapes could have been prevented, including the four recent Buckhead-area sex crimes, if this had been done? His first adult rape conviction occurred in 1976 — his latest rape charges occurred quite recently. Does anybody believe he took a twenty-year hiatus from hunting and torturing women?

Until his most recent arrest, Lavelle McNutt had been a free man since July, 2000, working in Atlanta-area restaurants, even managing them. He wasn’t hiding. As if his prior record isn’t bad enough, the current allegations about him are sickening: an informant reported that he carried “duct tape, wigs, lubricant and sex toys” in his car, to use during sexual assaults. We have all certainly helped him along on the road to perfecting his torture of women.

Why doesn’t a case like this capture the imagination of Atlanta’s many criminologists and law professors who rail endlessly against the putative cruelty of three-strikes laws (when they aren’t busy inventing fake statistical measurements to downplay the city’s crime numbers)? Why aren’t elected officials asking some very hard questions about the enforcement of the laws they passed? Why isn’t the GBI offering a clarification about the status of McNutt’s DNA profile, the date it was entered into the state database, and the number of rape kits it matched?

Why isn’t somebody calling for an audit of the possible prosecution, sentencing, and parole errors that released McNutt to the streets, over and over and over again?

Recidivist Chutes and Ladders: The Russell Burton Record

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The children’s board game, Chutes and Ladders, offers a clearer template for understanding our criminal justice system than a hundred studies put forth by academicians and think tanks.  Here is one example:

Russell Burton, who has been called a “Ted Bundy in the making,” was born in 1967.  According to the Los Angeles Daily News, when Burton was 17, he was arrested in Lancaster, California and charged with “breaking into a woman’s apartment and fondling her in bed.”  “Fondling” is a troubling term here: you fondle your child, or a puppy.  When you break into a woman’s house and try to rape her, that isn’t “fondling.” (“81 Years for Sexual Predator,” L.A. Daily News, 4/27/05, fee for link)

LADDERS:  But apparently, the judge felt otherwise.  A Los Angeles Juvenile Court Judge allowed Burton to avoid prosecution for B & E and attempted rape — by joining the Army.  The Army accepted him, and he was stationed in Georgia.  Thus, in 1984, nearly ten years after the first hard-won battle for rape law reform, the sentence for breaking into a woman’s house and attempting to rape her could still be no sentence at all.

Columbus, Georgia has paid a high price in violent sex crimes.  Several serial offenders have cut a bloody path through that town —  and the Army did precious little to stop at least two of them.

On September 3, 1987, Burton pulled alongside a car being driven by three teenage girls in Columbus, Georgia, near Fort Benning, where he was stationed.  He got the girls to pull over by indicating that something was wrong with their car, pointed a gun at them, and forced them to drive to a remote area.  He raped one girl and orally sodomized the other two.

Benning was 19 years old when he committed this crime.  The sophistication of the attack and the high risk involved — multiple victims, gun use, confrontation in a public place, abduction from one location to another — indicates that he was already an experienced, violent rapist.

CHUTES: In 1988, Burton was sentenced to life for the rape, 20 years for the kidnapping, and 20 years for the sodomy.  He entered prison in Georgia with a life sentence.  There was no sentence of life without parole in Georgia at that time.

Astonishingly, life without parole only became an option in Georgia a few week ago, during the 2009 Georgia General Assembly (previously, a prosecutor had to try for the death penalty to qualify a case for life without parole).  Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, when Democrats controlled the Georgia legislature, defense attorneys controlled the judiciary committees.  Credit where credit is due: such sentencing reform only became a reality in Georgia when Republicans took over both chambers.

LADDERS:  In any case, Burton didn’t have to wait for any parole board to cut him loose: the United States Court of Appeal for the 11th Circuit did that in February, 2002, fourteen years after he was sent away for life.  The Court granted Burton a new trial on the grounds that the district attorney “inappropriately” mentioned that Burton had exercised his right to remain silent when he was arrested.  Now, I know that constitutional attorneys would argue that mentioning Burton’s demeanor upon arrest is horribly prejudicial and tramples all over his rights.  But this blog isn’t a courtroom, so facts can be stated in plain English here: a violent sexual predator was released from prison because a prosecutor told the truth about what the violent sexual predator did when he was arrested, instead of not telling the truth about it, in a court rigged to let criminals off for virtually anything, instead of designed to discover the actual truth of a case.

Rigged like the fairway games at a sleazy carnival.

Or a dice throw in a children’s board game.  Such is our appeals process.

MORE LADDERS:  Burton was released from prison pending a new trial.  Then somebody decided that it wasn’t worth spending the money to try him again — thus deciding that the safety of women is less valuable than other things we could be spending money on, like appeals for violent rapists like Burton.*  In 2003, he was permitted to plead guilty to one count of rape and three counts of kidnapping in exchange for time served.

MORE CHUTES:  It turned out to be a good thing that Burton was required to plead to a sex offense.  Rapists used to be routinely permitted to plead down to non-sexual offenses.  That is why a high percentage of the first several thousand rapists identified through DNA matches had prior records only for crimes such as substance abuse and burglary, two common pleas that allowed predators to move from place to place and continue committing sex crimes with impunity.

Burton moved back to California and was required to register as a sex offender, which turned out to be one of the many, many thousands of good things that arise from sex offender registries — things you will never read about in any newspaper, of course.  Newspapers depict registering sex offenders as terribly cruel and ineffectual.

Anyway, after the good judges of the 11th Circuit threw Burton’s life sentence out on a technicality, and after the State of Georgia declined to try him again, it took him less than a year to go on a violent, crazed hunting spree against women.  It may have taken even less time, for there are no guarantees that Burton didn’t attack women in Columbus, or elsewhere in Georgia, or Alabama while he was awaiting the re-trial that never happened.

What is certain is that in 2004, freshly arrived from Georgia, he stalked and tried to abduct a woman in a parking lot in Palmdale, California.  The woman escaped.  He then attacked a teenager with a knife, trying to drag her into his car.  She escaped, and he was arrested.  After his arrest, three young girls came forward and reported the following crime:

The girls said a man approached them at the store saying he had car trouble and needed a ride, Lankford said. When he climbed into their car, he threatened one girl with a screwdriver and forced the sisters to take him to another town and back. He then forced one sister to drive his car while he rode with the other two. At a second parking lot the sister driving his car jumped out, and the man ran to his car and sped away. (“Felon Chargd in New Crimes,” Columbus Ledger-Inquirer, 3/2/04, fee for link)

These are the types of crimes that end with children’s bodies melting in the desert.  Luckily, those five victims escaped, but who didn’t?

By 2004, Burton was a fluent advocate for his own rights.  Upon arrest, he said to the police, “I’m a child molester, I want my phone call, and I want my attorney.” (ibid.)  Here is where the sex offender registry comes in: had he not been listed as a sex offender, he certainly would not have mentioned his prior convictions, and he might have been let free to await trial before the three young girls had time to see him in the newspaper or the judge learned of his record in Georgia.  Such things happen all the time, as readers of this blog know.

So the sex offender registry law may have saved lives in California that week.  The next time you read a news story condemning registries, remember Russell Burton.

CHUTES: In 2004, Burton was tried in Los Angeles Superior Court and found guilty of stalking, attempted kidnapping, making terroristic threats, and possession of cocaine.  His sentence for these crimes illustrate the effectiveness of California’s “three-strikes and you’re out” laws:

Burton’s sentence consisted of three terms of 25 years to life plus a one-year weapons enhancement and a five-year prior-serious-felony enhancement. (“Rapist’s Sentence Cut by 25 Years,” Los Angeles Daily News, 10/30/06, fee for link)

A dozen years earlier, prior to sentencing reform, Burton would likely not have received such a long sentence for these crimes, even though he has proven that he poses a serious threat.  And without the “three-strikes” rule, any sentence he did receive would have been slashed automatically the moment he set foot in prison.

LADDERS and CHUTES:  Burton immediately set to appealing his new convictions.  Why not?  In 2006, an appeals court agreed to throw out one of his 25-year sentences, the one for stalking, on the grounds that following a woman from one shopping mall to another did not rise to the level of stalking (the more people learn about the substance of most appeals, the better).  But in addition to doing this, the 2nd District Court of Appeals of California also rejected Burton’s claim that the three-strikes law constituted cruel and unusual punishment because so much time (14 years, to be precise) had elapsed between his crimes.  Here is what the court had to say, as reported in the Los Angeles Post:

“His prior strikes were for serious, violent offenses. So were two of the three convictions for which he was originally sentenced here, presently including the attempted kidnapping of a young woman, using a knife,” the ruling said.

“The interim between the two sets of offenses was consumed mostly by imprisonment, which did not restrain appellant from recommencing the same type of crime upon release. Given appellant’s unbroken history of violent crime, we cannot find this case to be one of the admittedly rare ones in which the recidivist sentence is unconstitutional,” the appeals court said.

CHUTES, CHUTES, CHUTES.  It looks as if Burton has finally lost in his bid to be free, thanks to the public outrage over repeat offenders that inspired changes in state laws and sentencing policies.  We won the game, this time.

But none of these laws are carved in stone, and many voices, including highers-up in the new Justice Department administration, are clamoring to roll back sentencing guidelines, overturn three-strikes laws, and eliminate sex offender registries.  The federal Adam Walsh law, requiring states to participate in a national registration system, is officially in limbo, short-circuiting the next stage of information-sharing between the states.  We’re at an information impasse in other ways, too: if any private industry in America had an IT network resembling that used by most courts, they would cease to exist.

The price of incarceration is eternal vigilance, too.

*Re-trying Burton doubtlessly would have been difficult, especially for the victims.  And it is always a risk to involve jurors in rape cases, for prejudices against rape victims persist and in many ways have grown stronger.  Too many people feel it is their duty to root for convicts as under-dogs, and they stupidly romanticize anyone appealing a case — until it’s their own daughter or mother who gets raped.  But difficulties like this are also used as an excuse to do nothing at all to restrain violent offenders in the interest of saving money in an overwhelmed and under-staffed court system.  This should have been a case where all stops were pulled out to keep Burton in prison.

Recidivism Roulette

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I am traveling to Atlanta this week, so I will stick to a subject that comes painfully easy: recidivism.

Research confirms what common sense has been telling us all along: fewer than 10% of offenders commit 70% of all crimes. Some career criminals admit to hundreds, even thousands of felonies. This should not surprise us: does anybody really believe that people go out and rob one convenience store, or break into one house, then spend the rest of their time mowing their lawns and working nine-to-five?

The fact that there are super-predators out there doesn’t mean that the garden-variety burglar can’t be pretty prolific, too. Many criminologists make it their business to deny both types of recidivism (the big kind and the little kind).  They do this in order to promote a philosophy of crime control that can be summarized this way: “prisons cause crime, not criminals, so if you don’t put people in prison, they won’t become recidivists.”  Which is true, at least on paper, for if you don’t put people in prison when they break into one house, they won’t be counted as recidivists when they break into the next house.

Even a passing glance at academic studies comparing recidivism rates reveal substantial flaws: usually, ex-inmates are tracked for very brief time periods after incarceration, and only certain types of incarceration are counted as repeat offenses.  With the prevalence of plea bargaining, the vast majority of crimes simply get shelved, never to appear on anyone’s record. And with the sealing of juvenile records, crimes committed during some of the most prolific years for criminal behavior are intentionally excluded from recidivism statistics. Academic claims about recidivism are almost universally meaningless.  (Here is an interesting article on the subject as it plays out in Canada.)

***

In Atlanta this week, a particularly horrifying case of violent recidivism is making its slow way to a courtroom. In 2006, Jennifer Ewing was raped and murdered while exercising on the Silver Comet Trail. Michael Ledford, on probation for a previous rape, is charged with the crime: the evidence against him is indisputable.

Defense attorneys don’t like the term “indisputable” unless they can work it to their advantage, which they do by claiming that the mere existence of indisputable evidence means that their client cannot get a fair trial — because “fair” has come to mean “endless tugs at the get-out-of-jail-free card.”  Thus expect a grotesquely expensive jury selection process, then grotesquely expensive hearings disputing Michael Ledford’s mental incompetency, and, throughout, demands for a mistrial because the public happened to find out that Ledford was caught for Ewing’s murder covered in blood, and he has done this before.

How many women has Michael Ledford really raped?  Convicted of rape in Georgia in 1991, he received a heavy sentence for a rape at that time and also served more of that sentence than you usually see, ten full years in prison and ten more on probation.  Ten years behind bars is not unusual today, but few rapists spent that much time in prison prior to the sentencing reform of the mid-1990’s.  So what was the reason for throwing the book at him back then?

I suspect he was a prolific rapist, and police knew it, even though he was only charged with the one crime.  Ledford was 29 when he was sent up for rape; rapists usually start committing sex crimes in their teens.  What was he doing between the ages of 19 and 29?  Who knew about it?  The victim in the 1991 assault told the court that Ledford would doubtlessly rape again.

She was right.  Another question: what was Ledford doing between his release in 2001 and his arrest for Jennifer Ewing’s murder in 2006?  Mowing his lawn?  Working nine-to-five?

The public is being asked to absorb the sure-to-be-excessive legal bill as Ledford’s lawyers attempt to use the strength of the evidence against him to get him off.  The public is also being asked to accept arguments that recidivists belong in the community, not behind bars.  They should not accede to either without receiving full disclosure about many things, including the real criminal histories of people like Michael Ledford: juvenile records, plea bargains, shelved cases, and all.

A Recommendation on Acknowledging Recidivism From Tennessee

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More interesting crime coverage from The Tennessean, this time an editorial detailing the legislative proposals of the Tennessee Public Safety Commission, a coalition of police chiefs, sheriffs and district attorneys.  Every state should take note of one of the get-tough-on-recidivists recommendations they’re making:

[Another] proposal of the group is for requiring each home burglary committed in a 24-hour period to count as separate cases. They would be considered separate previous convictions. Prosecutors say many burglars are aware that hitting several homes in one 24-hour period is considered only one case. That should change.

It’s not just burglaries committed within twenty-four hours of each other that get telescoped down to one charge.  Look at recidivists’ rap sheets.  One of the great injustices perpetrated by our justice system is the near-automatic dismissal of multiple crimes whenever a defendant gets charged with one offense.  Break into five homes, get caught, get charged and sentenced on one burglary count.  The other four burglaries are quietly shelved.  And if the defendant is a first offender, he may get away with all five charges.

The same is even true of violent crime.  By choosing expediency over actually responding to crimes, the criminal justice system is essentially saying to victims: your victimization doesn’t count.  The person next to you; his victimization counts.  The person on the other side: he is being ignored by the justice system, just like you.  

There is no equal protection for crime victims.  

This is the way it has been for so long that people who work within the criminal justice system would probably find the mere notion of demanding prosecution for every felony utterly risible.  Not to mention impossible, since the courts have been calibrated (read: defunded, or starved) to have resources only to respond to a fraction of the crimes that are committed.  

But why, precisely, should it be this way?  Why, philosophically, shouldn’t non-criminals — law abiding citizens — have the same rights and access to equal protection as people who commit crimes?  Why shouldn’t your burglary count in the same way as your neighbor’s burglary?  

The short answer, cavalierly thrown out by pro-criminal advocates, is that the justice system would “grind to a halt” if all felonies were prosecuted.  Note that these are the same people who simultaneously say that our justice system is “far to harsh on defendants,” and that “it is a great injustice that America has so many people behind bars,” as if this is just something that happens spontaneously, with no relation to the fact that America has so many people who commit serious crimes.

Appeals courts are clogged with complaints by convicts that they have been treated unfairly, compared to other convicts.  And every single one of those cases, however frivolous, must be addressed, a process that costs taxpayers vast amounts of money.   Imagine if non-convicts had the right to do the same.  

Perhaps somebody in the Georgia General Assembly should look into emulating the Tennessee Public Safety Commission’s proposed recidivism legislation.  If it had been on the books in Georgia (and properly enforced), it would have saved lives.

The Tiny Burglar, Shamal Thompson, and Johnny Dennard: Recidivism and Sentencing in Georgia

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Atlanta is designed to be a neighborly city — so neighborly, in fact, with its vast downtown neighborhoods of suburban-style houses with yards, that it is entirely possible to get to know the criminals who cycle through the court system and end up in your driveway over and over again, rifling for change in your car. For years, I watched one such person wander the streets of my neighborhood, and I chased her away from my own car more than once — the worry wasn’t losing pocket change from the console but having to replace a broken window or jammed door lock, which can run to hundreds of dollars.  

She acted like a stray dog, and so I came to treat her like one, shouting at her out my window to get off my lawn. Of course I pitied her.  She was small, wizened and jerky from dyskinesia, and I knew the streets and her addiction must be hard on her.  She dressed to look like a male — less as a statement of sexual identity than as an effort to protect herself from sexual attack, I suspect.  Homeless women and women in the criminal “lifestyle” are very vulnerable to rape.  

I believe she spent as much time as possible casing my neighborhood, instead of choosing the dangerous housing projects south of us, or the more affluent homes north of us, because there were people around who could be robbed while feeling obliged to protect her from violence: we were the “just right” neighborhood for committing crimes — not too hot, not too cold.  On a few occasions, I gave her food while scolding her about coming onto my yard: I am not as heartless as the activists posting here from “Changing Lives Through Literature” seem to believe.    

Why didn’t I call the police on her?  I did, more than once.  But after the first few times, I stopped calling them when I saw this woman up on my neighbors’ lawns or on my lawn, peering into cars and houses.  It’s not that the police didn’t respond.  But by the time they arrived, the woman would be gone, or trotting down the street hollering that she didn’t do anything, and the police would say they couldn’t do anything without evidence of the crime I had just interrupted. Trespassing was my word against her word: nothing would come of it, they would say.  I stopped demanding police reports.  Most of the cops were incredibly gracious, but they were spread thin and operating under leadership that prevented them from doing their jobs.  What is the point of arresting and processing a tiny little drug addict scrounging for pocket change, when she will simply be given a place to sleep for the night, then released in a day or a few days by a judge who is either exclusively sympathetic to criminals by temperament or forced to act so because there is pressure from above to spend as little as possible on “non-violent” crimes?  

For the police, every such arrest meant hours of processing paperwork and many more hours in court.  So there was a policy — written or unwritten, I don’t know — to “encourage” callers to agree to do nothing unless or until property damage occurred or a situation escalated to violence.  This policy was roundly abetted by Atlanta’s atrocious 911 operators.  I rarely met a cop who was anything less than professional, but the 911 operators behaved as if you were interrupting their manicure.  Or worse.

Of course, dumbing down the justice system like this is a dangerous game, and, of course, it ended in tears. The day came when I looked out my window and saw the wizened little drug addict using a rock to break my neighbor’s back window.  Exasperated, I grabbed my portable phone and ran out my front door to call the police.  I hadn’t seen the Corvette parked in my neighbor’s driveway, or the two men sitting in it.  By the time I did, I was standing outside with a phone in my hand, yelling at the woman to stop breaking glass.  One of the men came out of the car fast, and started running at me.  He wasn’t small, and he wasn’t defenseless.  

But I was lucky.  I had a dog, a pleasant-though-ominous-looking Weimerainer.  The Weimerainer hadn’t moved from his bed much in years; he was deep in his dotage and completely blind, but he somehow sensed through several walls that I was in danger and tore out of the house towards the man, who wisely retreated to his car.  The dog wandered off to relieve himself, but the men didn’t risk getting out of the car again, and I was even able to make note of their license plate number as they collected the tiny burglar and drove away.

There is a lot more to this story, and I will get to the rest of it another day, but right now I want to stick to that moment in my front yard.  I had been lulled, not entirely voluntarily, into dealing with the tiny burglar as a nuisance, not a threat.  The police treated her that way (also not entirely voluntarily), and the courts treated her that way, and surely the good people at “Changing Lives Through Literature” would look at her and see nothing more than a victim of bad luck who needed empathy, not incarceration.  But, in reality, I didn’t know what the tiny burglar was thinking when she skittered off my front yard or accepted a handout.  She could have been thinking about slitting my throat as she took food from my hand.  She wasn’t just some tragic, dyskinesiatic moppet: she was also a career criminal who got up every morning and began trying (albeit very badly) to commit crimes, and she probably attempted or committed thousands of crimes over the decade-and-a half I saw her walking the streets.     

Then finally, one day, she brought dangerous men to my neighbor’s house, and if they had been armed, I could have been murdered in my own front yard, phone in hand, bleeding to death as a bored 911 operator put me on hold to examine a chip in one of her acrylic nails.

***

Below is the Georgia Code on recidivists and sentencing.  I would be grateful to hear from a legal practitioner who can paraphrase it, for, as I read it, the code grants judges enormous latitude in sentencing second offenders — essentially permitting them to do as they please.  Even after three prior felonies, it only suspends the possibility of parole for the fourth felony while still allowing the judge to define that sentence. There may be other sentencing guidelines that enter here.  The recidivism law does require life without parole for conviction for a second “serious violent felony” (this means murder or felony murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, rape, aggravated child molestation, aggravated sodomy, and aggravated sexual battery).  But what about repeat offenders like the tiny burglar?  How often has she been arrested, processed, then released back on the streets by a judge who decided that her crime wasn’t worth the court’s time?  And at what point does a judge’s decision to table a prosecution conflict with enforcement of the recidivism law?

These are the types of questions that never seem to be addressed, even in the aftermath of an horrific, preventable crime like the murder of Eugenia Calle.  In that case, it appears that one Fulton County judge failed to so much as check Shamal Thompson’s record in other jurisdictions before wrongfully granting him a first offender status for which he did not qualify.  There is still no public word on possible censure for Judge Cynthia Becker.  Why on earth not?  Doesn’t the public deserve some answers?  Is it common to fail to check for prior convictions in other jurisdictions before sentencing offenders?  Does this happen every day?  Is the judiciary simply hoping that this question will go away?  

Are judges not abiding by the law?

And what about  Johnny Dennard, who had at least five burglary convictions when he was convicted for burglary a sixth time and was released to an “outpatient treatment center” rather than being sent to serve the (apparently mandatory) minimum five years for the crime?  Is the prosecutor appealing the sentence?  If not, why not?       

UPDATE FROM PAUL KERSEY, ATL:

“I want to let you know about the latest news I heard concerning the Shamal Thompson case. Last week a local TV station aired a story that included an interview with the DeKalb District Attorney Gwen Keyes Fleming. When asked why Thompson was allowed to receive first-offender status for his burglary charge in 2006, Fleming said it was because his conviction in Gwinnett County had not been properly entered into the computer system used to keep track of such things. Of course that still doesn’t let DeKalb off the hook, as I imagine there are other ways to check for such information. And it certainly does not let Judge Becker off the hook. Gwinnett confirmed the person who was supposed to enter Thompson’s conviction was aware there was a problem when they attempted to enter the information, but apparently it was never corrected.”

***

Georgia Code § 17-10-7.  Punishment of repeat offenders; punishment and eligibility for parole of persons convicted of fourth felony offense
   (a) Except as otherwise provided in subsection (b) of this Code section, any person convicted of a felony offense in this state or having been convicted under the laws of any other state or of the United States of a crime which if committed within this state would be a felony and sentenced to confinement in a penal institution, who shall afterwards commit a felony punishable by confinement in a penal institution, shall be sentenced to undergo the longest period of time prescribed for the punishment of the subsequent offense of which he or she stands convicted, provided that, unless otherwise provided by law, the trial judge may, in his or her discretion, probate or suspend the maximum sentence prescribed for the offense.   (b)(1) As used in this subsection, the term “serious violent felony” means a serious violent felony as defined in subsection (a) of Code Section 17-10-6.1.

   (2) Any person who has been convicted of a serious violent felony in this state or who has been convicted under the laws of any other state or of the United States of a crime which if committed in this state would be a serious violent felony and who after such first conviction subsequently commits and is convicted of a serious violent felony for which such person is not sentenced to death shall be sentenced to imprisonment for life without parole. Any such sentence of life without parole shall not be suspended, stayed, probated, deferred, or withheld, and any such person sentenced pursuant to this paragraph shall not be eligible for any form of pardon, parole, or early release administered by the State Board of Pardons and Paroles or for any earned time, early release, work release, leave, or any other sentence-reducing measures under programs administered by the Department of Corrections, the effect of which would be to reduce the sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole, except as may be authorized by any existing or future provisions of the Constitution.

(c) Except as otherwise provided in subsection (b) of this Code section, any person who, after having been convicted under the laws of this state for three felonies or having been convicted under the laws of any other state or of the United States of three crimes which if committed within this state would be felonies, commits a felony within this state other than a capital felony must, upon conviction for such fourth offense or for subsequent offenses, serve the maximum time provided in the sentence of the judge based upon such conviction and shall not be eligible for parole until the maximum sentence has been served.

(d) For the purpose of this Code section, conviction of two or more crimes charged on separate counts of one indictment or accusation, or in two or more indictments or accusations consolidated for trial, shall be deemed to be only one conviction.                                

 

Burglary is Not a Non-Violent Crime, #2: A Lesson on DNA and Recidivism

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In today’s St. Petersburg Times, on a double murder in Masaryktown, Florida:

The feet belonged to Patrick DePalma Sr., 84. He lay on his stomach, head and torso halfway into the den, a mess of blood by his head. He wore a blue sweat suit; his slippers were astray nearby.

Evelyn DePalma, 79, sat on the floor, upright against a twin bed and the wall of the southeast bedroom. She wore a red sweat suit and a pair of slippers. Blood stained her clothes, the bed, the wall, the door, the carpet and a pair of wooden shoes next to her.

They had been stabbed to death with a long-bladed knife.

The house was ravaged, as if someone had been looking for something. His blood appeared on a shower curtain; hers on the pantry — both far from where they eventually died.

Deputies retraced their steps and left. Yellow crime scene tape wrapped the house for two weeks.

The brutal murder of Evelyn and Patrick DePalma occurred in October, 2006, and the case went cold.  15 months later, Robert William Jardin was arrested on an unrelated burglary charge.  Luckily, he was found guilty, and found guilty in Florida, where all convicted felons, even those who receive probation for their crimes, are required to submit DNA samples to the state. 

Jardin was sentenced to probation and was forced to submit a DNA sample.  Six months later, in June 2008, his DNA was finally processed into the state database, and he was matched to the brutal double murder of the DePalmas.

What would have happened if the judge had decided to waive charges in the burglary case because it was “just a burglary,” or had let him plead down to a misdemeanor crime, or deferred prosecution entirely and allowed Jardin to enter a community-based treatment program instead?  

  •  Innocent people would remain under suspicion for the murder of the DePalmas.
  • A brutal murderer would still be walking the streets.
  • The DaPalma family would still be denied justice, and a double murder would go unsolved.

Florida has a very good DNA database collection law, which you can see here.  But the law can only be enforced after judges take the step of finding suspects guilty of certain crimes.  

Georgia’s DNA database law was expanded in 2007 to include certain felony probationers, including burglars.  So a Robert William Jardin would have been subjected to DNA testing — right under the wire — in Georgia as well.

The 2007 revision of Georgia’s DNA law is one of the many innovations in DNA databasing that has Georgia and Florida ahead of most states, innovations that date back in Georgia to the tenure of then-Lt. Governor Mark Taylor, who championed the database for solving sex crimes against children and adults.  If Robert William Jardin had committed burglary and been sentenced to probation in most states, he would not have been required to provide a DNA sample, and the DaPalma’s murder would still be unsolved.  

But the law is only as good as the judges who sentence defendants.  

Here are the legislators who passed Georgia H.B. 314, the 2007 expansion of Georgia’s DNA database law. House members Jay Neal, David Ralston, Burke Day, Mike Coan, Barry Fleming, and Billy Mitchell.  And Senator Jeff Mullis.

Last August, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation announced that Georgia had reached the milestone of recording 1,000 “hits” on the database for unsolved crimes.  Their press release contains interesting information about the relationship between burglary convictions and unsolved rapes, highlighted below.  

GBI’s DNA Database Reaches 1000 Confirmed Hits

DECATUR –   The DNA Database at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) crime lab or CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) today reached 1000 hits to unsolved cases with the matching of DNA from an incarcerated state prisoner to DNA evidence from a 1987 rape of an 84-year-old Atlanta woman.  The offender is currently serving a life sentence at Hancock State Prison for the rapes of two elderly women in Atlanta.  At the request of the Atlanta Police Department, the GBI located the original biological evidence from the 1987 case and processed it for DNA for entering in the database.

GBI Director Vernon Keenan stated, “The 1000 hits on unsolved cases shows the value of DNA for Georgia law enforcement and for the public safety of all Georgia citizens by helping solve violent crimes that otherwise may have gone unsolved. We are grateful for the past support of the Georgia General Assembly in recognizing the importance of DNA in solving crimes.”

The GBI began DNA testing in 1991 and implemented CODIS in 1998.  At that time under state law, only those convicted and incarcerated for sex offenses were included in the database. For the next two years, the database solved 13 rapes and other sexual crimes by linking evidence to an incarcerated sex offender.  The current success of the program stemmed from the expansion of the offender law by the Georgia legislature in 2000 to include all incarcerated convicted felons. In the first year after expansion over 70 cases were solved. The majority of DNA hits since 2000 have been for rape cases but the primary crimes these offenders were incarcerated for are drug, burglary or robbery related.

In 2007, the legislature expanded the DNA database statute to include certain felony probationers.  There have been 12 DNA hits to probationers.

Currently, the GBI DNA database contains 162,390 samples. Of that total, 155,184 are offender samples and 7,206 are forensic or evidence samples. 

# # # # #

“The majority of DNA hits since 2000 have been for rape cases but the primary crimes these offenders were incarcerated for are drug, burglary or robbery related.”

For many decades, difficulties in prosecuting rape cases encouraged prosecutors to offer burglary pleas in some cases where the primary crime was actually rape.  Once DNA databasing was implemented and expanded to include burglars, robbers, and other felons, a startling number of men whose only prior records were for drug or burglary charges turned out to be rapists — including prolific, serial rapists.  Any time somebody chooses to break into a private residence, they have crossed a dangerous line.  When will the courts respond accordingly?

 

 

Should Judges Assign More Community Therapy For Recidivists?

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LAST MAY, the wired world was treated to an unpleasant, yet hardly unique, slice of Atlanta’s public transportation system via “MARTA GIRL,” a video that showed a deranged young woman berating and threatening an elderly train rider.  The older woman dealt with the barrage of threats by doing what any sane consumer of public transportation knows to do instinctively: stare straight ahead and pretend that some screeching lunatic or addict isn’t threatening to harm you.

Awful things were made visible on the video.  In a train filled with physically able passengers, nobody stepped forward to shield an elderly woman from an aggressive assailant who was inches from her face, screaming that she was going to “beat [the elderly woman’s] ass.” 

Men who could have contained the young woman (“N.Z.”) did nothing.  The person who videotaped the assault did something, I suppose, by recording and posting the video.  But how do you justify taping an incident like this instead of trying to stop it?

Were these people afraid to intervene, lest the situation escalate?  Dressed as she was, if N.Z. had a concealed weapon, it was concealed creatively.  But instead of stepping in, a few men merely called out from their seats, telling the girl to calm down.  “Chill, it’s an old lady, man,” said one lackadaisical observer.

N.Z. continued down the train’s aisle and lashed out at another passenger.  He rose up and grabbed her by her hair, and a short slapping match ensued.  Now there was physical violence in addition to the assault on the elderly woman: two crimes.  Yet nobody made a move to call the police.  Even after they exited the train, it appears that none of the witnesses contacted authorities.  N.Z. was arrested and charged with a crime only after the video was circulated on-line. 

Were these people afraid to report N.Z. because they anticipated sharing a future train with her?  Were they even afraid of drawing attention to themselves by calling police from the station?  Did they expect (reasonably) that their complaints would be dismissed?  (And were they?)  Or did this incident simply seem ordinary and not worthy of action?  

Whichever is true, such are the terms of the new, negative social contract: I will ignore your abuse of someone else if you do not abuse me next.  The man who reared up from his seat and grabbed N.Z.’s hair only after she started lunging at him may be seen as merely exercising the soft terms of this contract.

BUT AFTER SHE WAS ARRESTED, of course, the N.Z. story became a story about something else: this time, the controversy over releasing mentally ill and drug-addicted defendants to “community treatment” centers instead of incarcerating them.

Like so many defendants — drug-addicted, mentally ill, youthful or not — N.Z.’s needs and problems became the sole focus of the judiciary as soon as she set foot in court.

As reported in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, N.Z. was already on probation for a previous attack on a transit officer when she attacked the elderly train rider.  According to the solicitor in her most recent case, N.Z. had “a lengthy criminal history of violent outbursts” and “never showed up for the mental health diversion program in another case.”   

She had faced no consequences for failing to perform the requirements of probation in the officer’s assault – seeing a probation officer and performing community service.  Even though she further violated the requirements of probation by committing another assault (or two), DeKalb County State Court Judge Barbara Mobley chose to halt the criminal case against N.Z. and refer her to a “pretrial diversion program for mentally ill people” instead of allowing the state to prosecute her.

By “dead-docketing” N.Z.’s prosecution, Judge Mobley told the public that their safety simply did not matter – because N.Z. has a mental illness.  In other courtrooms, other judges are delivering the same message to other communities: “your home being broken into doesn’t matter because the defendant has a drug addiction,” or, “your car being stolen doesn’t matter because the defendant is a youthful offender.”  

N.Z. seemed aware of this double standard, if little else, as she stood hollering on the train.  Out of all the people there, only N.Z. felt comfortable asserting her rights to legal protection.  On the video, you can hear her shrieking it:

“I’m pressing charges.  I’m pressing charges.  I’m pressing charges.” 

 

 

 

Getting Away with Crime, Circa 1970

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(I will get to “Recommendations for the Courts” later in the week.)

Events are moving quickly for activists in Atlanta, a place where a weird confluence of crime, organizing against crime, and Internet connections have torn away the media curtain that ordinarily hangs between the public and public individuals’ experiences of crime and the courts — revealing the abject failure of those courts and our top elected officials to act on public safety.

At this odd moment, I want to offer a little historical perspective on the phenomenon of getting away with crime.

In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson responded to exploding crime rates in America’s cities by founding the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Crime.  Like many efforts of its time, the Commission was heavy on seeking psycho-social “root causes” for criminality.  Howard Zinn weighed in on how the “Pigs” should be in prison and the prisoners should roam the streets.  And so on.

But those were more civilized days among the elite, which of course included Howard Zinn, his demurral notwithstanding.  So the Commission’s report to the President offered a wide range of ideological views on the subject of crime, something that rarely happens in academic conferences today.

Milton S. Eisenhower was one of those old guys whose yellowing Brillo creamed black-and-white visages still stare out at us from office lobbies everywhere.  He was, in two words, widely respected.  He was the head of Johnson’s crime Commission, and the former President of Johns Hopkins University, and a member of UNESCO, and lots of other things.  Here is what Milton S. Eisenhower said to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Crime in 1970:

We live in an urban society.  We live in an affluent society.  And we live in a society that is violent.  In the convergence of those three characteristics lies a central problem for America in the 1970’s.

The best estimate of the number of serious crimes committed in the United States each year is 10 million, of which more than 1.2 Million are violent crimes: homicides, aggravated assaults, forcible rapes, and robberies.  According to another estimate, more than 1 out of 100 Americans commits a major violent crime in any one year.

There remains one very obvious reason for mounting crime in our society: the increasing failure of law enforcement agencies to cope with it.  Comsider the grim statistics.  Probably 10 million serious crimes were committed in the United States last year.  About half of those crimes were never reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  Only 12 percent of those 10 million crimes resulted in the arrest of anyone.  Only 6 percent resulted in the conviction of anyone, and this 6 percent included many pleas to lesser offenses.  Only 1 1/2 percent resulted in the incarceration of anyone.  And of those who were incarcerated, most will return to prison another time for additional offenses.  As Lloyd Cutler, eminent lawyer and executive director of the Violence Commission, remarked on these statistics: ‘It would hard to argue that crime does not pay.  The sad fact is that our criminal justice system, as presently operated, does not deter, does not detect, does not convict, and does not correct.’

Violence: The Crisis of American Confidence, ed. Hugh Davis Graham (Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1971)

In 1970, our nation’s best minds across the political spectrum agreed that fewer than 2% of those who commit a serious crime even served time for it.  That was forty years ago, and it hasn’t changed much.