System Failure

Chanda Johnson went to court for protection from her ex-husband. She didn't get it.

In fact, no one connected to the Garrett case is keen on talking about it. A curtain of silence has descended on what happened in Courtroom 117-M last year, as if it never happened at all. Judge Crew declined to comment on the case, other than to say that he was "saddened" by its outcome. City employees involved in the Garrett matter have been instructed to refer all questions to Assistant City Attorney Jim Thomas, who emphasizes the changes in policy his office has made to try to prevent the situation from repeating.

Chanda Johnson's boyfriend and her family declined to talk about her, out of fear of compromising the homicide case against her ex-husband. Similarly, Garrett's public defender offered few comments about her client, citing the upcoming murder trial, scheduled for November.

But court records provide more than a few clues about what went wrong in Crew's courtroom, where Garrett appeared four times in six months. The case is riddled with prosecutorial and judicial missteps, errant procedures involving sentencing and victim notification, breakdowns in communication and wrongheaded assumptions. If so much can go wrong in a "typical" minor case, how many other potentially lethal mistakes are being committed every day?

Bench pressed: Judge Robert B. Crew Jr. ordered Chanda Johnson to leave his courtroom.
Bench pressed: Judge Robert B. Crew Jr. ordered Chanda Johnson to leave his courtroom.

In some ways, Denver's efforts to curb domestic violence are now suffering from too much success. The city has long been hailed by victims' advocates for being on the cutting edge of domestic-violence prosecutions, as well as for being a pioneer in the shelter movement and mandatory treatment programs for batterers ("Hard Lessons," June 18, 1998). Having widened the net to encompass a vast range of domestic disputes, from the mundane to the horrific, prosecutors now find themselves choking on a caseload that scarcely allows any defendant to receive his hour, let alone his day, in court. Amid all the frenzied plea bargaining -- designed, in part, to keep the jails from bursting -- much of what is important about a case, including the victim's safety, can get lost.

"If I could wish for anything, I would wish that they had more resources in Denver," says Susan DeFreitas, coordinator of a court-monitoring program for Project Safeguard. "More judges. Another courtroom. Less of a caseload for the people who work there. These guys have thirty or forty cases a day sometimes. They're negotiating all over the place."

No court system is flawless, and not every domestic tragedy can be prevented. But Chanda Johnson's efforts to seek protection from Michael Garrett didn't just fall through the cracks; from the outset, the case went haywire, sending the wrong message to both victim and defendant. Some of the confusion may be the fault of Judge Crew, a veteran jurist with his own peculiar style, a way of defusing the incessant grimness of his courtroom that may have backfired in this instance. But DeFreitas and several other observers believe the real culprit is the crush of cases bearing down on judges and prosecutors alike, an overload that transforms courtrooms into bazaars and victims into statistics.

Chanda Johnson deserved better. At the very least, she deserved to be heard.

Michael Garrett and Chanda Johnson were together for almost seven years. In Garrett's view, it was not a bond that could be broken easily. Although he admitted in divorce court that he had made Chanda's life "a living hell," he also claimed a deep attachment to the child he'd had with her, Mychel, as well as Chanda's daughter from a previous relationship, Elonca. Having children changed everything; as he told Judge Crew, it meant that he and Johnson would "be in each others' lives for the rest of our lives."

Doubtless Johnson felt differently about the matter. She'd known disappointment before, knew the challenges of starting over. She had dropped out of high school but later took college-level computer-science courses. According to her divorce lawyer, she had been married before, to a man who is now serving time in the Texas prison system. Various people knew her as Chanda Johnson, Chanda Richardson and, briefly, as Chanda Johnson-Richardson. At the time she became involved with Garrett, she was 23 years old and the sole support of her one-year-old daughter. Garrett was 25 and eking out a living as a truck driver.

In 1995, Garrett was arrested on misdemeanor assault, menacing and domestic-violence charges. The available paperwork doesn't indicate whether Johnson or some other girlfriend was the complainant in the case, but the charges didn't dissuade Johnson from living with Garrett. Their common-law marriage began officially in August that year, the same month that the assault case was dismissed on a motion of the prosecutor.

Mychel was born the following summer. Working as a customer-software administrator for a telecom firm, Johnson made twice as much money as Garrett did in his driving jobs -- when he was working, that is. For long periods of the marriage, he was unemployed and referred to himself as a "stay-at-home parent," but Johnson also paid her mother for help with child care. She also paid the mortgage, as well the cost of movies, trips to the zoo and museums, swimming and gymnastics lessons, and everything else she thought her children should have.

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