System Failure

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

"She was a hardworking girl," says Larry Carroll, her divorce attorney. "She really tried in the relationship to have something of a family, but she was unable to because of his drug use."

By early 2001, the marriage was falling apart -- due, Carroll says, to Garrett's escalating crack use. Money problems had dogged the relationship for some time. (In 1998, Johnson had been charged with shoplifting in what appears to have been a scheme to raise some quick cash by returning pilfered items for a refund; she pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and received six months' probation.) The breaking point came after Johnson discovered that Garrett had forged checks on her account totaling $263.

She says she "put him out" of her house on February 26, 2001. Garrett entered a drug-rehab program at a local hospital, paid for by Johnson's insurance, but left after two days. A few nights later, Johnson came home and found a window broken and a door busted open. All of the lights were off; the television was flickering with the volume turned down. Garrett was waiting for her, she would later say, with a knife in his hand.

Michael Hogue
Till death: Police say Michael Garrett ambushed his ex-wife on January 20, then attempted suicide.
Till death: Police say Michael Garrett ambushed his ex-wife on January 20, then attempted suicide.

She fled. In the request for a temporary restraining order she filed two days later, she described confrontations with her husband in which he'd dragged her by the hair and bitten her. She asked that Garrett be kept at least 1,500 yards away "from wherever I am." Garrett returned to rehab.

Studies indicate that the danger faced by battered women increases when they seek to end the relationship, either by filing divorce papers or seeking protective orders. However, a recent study by the University of Washington suggests that the victim's risk of assault can drop significantly once the process of seeking protection through the courts is followed through. Of course, it doesn't always work that way.

Johnson's restraining order became permanent on April 3, the same day that she filed for divorce. The next day, she came home from work, spotted Garrett outside and called the police. He was gone by the time they arrived. Three days after that, during Elonca's seventh birthday party, he made another unexpected appearance. "Go tell Mommy, Daddy's in the garage," Elonca told one of her guests.

Three more violations of the restraining order were reported over the next two months. There were probably other, unreported contacts. As they waited for the divorce case to make its way through the system, Johnson and Garrett apparently made their own informal arrangements for him to visit the children -- arrangements that Garrett rarely complied with, but that complicated the matter of enforcing the restraining order. Garrett would later claim that Johnson called him on occasion, harassed him and even pulled a gun on him at Elonca's party -- a .380 handgun that she was careful to list among her assets in the divorce filing.

"It's obvious they went through a very tumultuous relationship," says deputy public defender Hollynd Hoskins, who is representing Garrett in the homicide case. "It's a sad situation. There was confusion as to whether he could continue visitation with the children, and it appears that there was an ongoing agreement, regardless of what was going on in court. A person can get a restraining order, but then they feel they can call the other party when they want to. People need to understand it applies to both parties."

But Carroll, Johnson's divorce attorney, says he never had any doubts that his client wanted Garrett to be kept far away from her. "She was very afraid of him," he says. "You could see a change in her demeanor when he entered the courtroom. Just his presence made her tighten up."

That June, following a threatening phone call that constituted his fifth reported violation of the restraining order, Garrett was arrested. Johnson's effort to get him out of her life was now a matter for the courts.

Last year the Denver City Attorney's Office prosecuted more than 4,900 domestic-violence cases. For the most part, these were not felony cases (which are handled by the district attorney) or even misdemeanors; the vast majority of them were filed in Denver's general-sessions courts, which also preside over cases involving petty theft, disturbing the peace, shoplifting, loitering and other municipal-ordinance violations.

The domestic-violence cases piped into general sessions are not the stuff of movies-of-the-week. The plot, what there is of it, usually consists of drunken arguments, restraining-order violations and an occasional bruise. The star players are people who won't stop drinking and don't show up for their court-ordered domestic-violence classes and can't seem to keep appointments with their probation officers. These are small-time dramas, mostly, but there is no shortage of them.

Five thousand cases a year, six prosecutors, three judges. Do the math. That's close to a hundred cases a week, divided among three courtrooms, wedged in among the bar fights and the whizzing-on-the-sidewalk complaints. Everybody is entitled to a trial, but there's no way the system can handle a hundred trials a week, or even twenty. So everybody is offered a deal, and almost everybody takes it. Upwards of 95 percent of the cases never get to trial.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help