System Failure

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

Judge Robert Crew's courtroom is located in an obscure corner of the Denver City and County Building, a forlorn outpost down the hall from the parking-fines cashier. In his 25 years on the bench, Crew has served in practically every cranny of the county court, including arraignments, traffic court and protective orders. These days he's shouldering one-third of the domestic cases, which means his job consists largely of signing off on deals already reached by prosecutor and defendant, quizzing those who plead guilty to determine if they understand their rights, and deciding what to do when the deals don't work out.

The cases move briskly. Attorneys shuffle files and weave among the defendants, calling out names. It's not unusual for a plea offer to be made, weighed and accepted only moments before the case is supposed to go to trial. Some defendants fail to appear when their names are called, and warrants are issued for their arrest. In other instances, it is the complaining witness who has disappeared, which usually results in a prompt dismissal of the case.

The pace can be startling -- and unrelenting. On a recent Monday morning, Crew called fourteen cases in thirty minutes. Defendants one and two didn't show; bonds forfeited and bench warrants issued, Crew announced. Number three pleaded guilty to a charge of disturbing the peace on condition of an assault charge being dismissed; ninety days in jail suspended, Crew ruled, and a year of probation and 56 hours of public service.

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.

Number four, in custody in another case, complaining witness not cooperating; this case dismissed. Number five, complaining witness didn't appear; case dismissed. Number six pleaded guilty to assault, a charge of disturbing the peace dismissed; 200-day suspended sentence, probation, domestic-violence counseling. Seven was a no-show; bench warrant issued. Eight requested a new lawyer; request denied, case continued. Nine pleaded guilty to assault; ninety days in jail, probation, DV classes. Ten, complaining witness passed away; case dismissed.

Number eleven rejected his plea deal; case continued, the city attorney to seek a contempt citation for a witness who failed to appear. Twelve and thirteen were postponed because they were in custody elsewhere. Fourteen failed to appear; bench warrant issued.

Crew is a bluff, fatherly figure on the bench, more prone to cajolery than stern lectures in dealing with his errant flock. When a slack-jawed, bearded batterer appeared before him dressed in his Sunday best -- an Eddie McCaffrey jersey -- Crew took the occasion to encourage the man to complete his domestic-violence classes, noting that the classes would help him control his anger not only at home, but also "in case of a bad boss, or someone beating the Broncos."

The judge's hail-fellow-well-met approach rarely flags, even during revocation hearings, when defendants with spotty probation records offer a variety of hard-luck stories in an effort to stay out of jail. Having frequently expressed concern about the overcrowded state of the county jail, Crew will look for any ray of sunshine in a straying defendant's record -- a stab at restitution, a steady attendance record in DV or anger-management classes, a vote of confidence from an employer -- in order to consider giving the wayward one another chance. Stern sentences are imposed and suspended, but hardly anyone does much of the mythical jail time.

"I would rather have you sitting in class than sitting in the jailhouse," he told one recent offender, who'd managed to get arrested on a fresh assault charge while on probation in a previous domestic-violence case. "Had you been involved in those classes, the whole intent was that you not pick up a new case."

Two years ago, the Second Judicial District Commission on Judicial Performance gave Crew a strong vote of confidence, urging his retention in the 2000 election. The panel described the judge as "a strong believer in victims' rights...conscientious about controlling his docket and attending to the many pending cases," and gave him high marks for his "diligence, efficiency and minimal delay."

"Judge Crew is no bleeding-heart liberal," says his colleague Raymond Satter, the presiding judge of Denver County Court. "He's one tough guy."

But some prosecutors who've appeared before Crew regard him as surprisingly lenient in domestic cases, and some defense attorneys consider him to be erratic. Both qualities were in evidence when Michael Garrett stepped into his courtroom last year.

Garrett was scheduled for trial on July 31, 2001, on all five reported violations of Johnson's restraining order against him, designated as five separate cases. Had anyone involved in the process looked closely at the totality of the circumstances -- the underlying allegations of the restraining order itself, the established pattern of calls and threats, at least one break-in -- it's possible that the cases would never have come before Crew at all; arguably, the charges could have been filed as a single felony stalking case in district court. But that would have required an exceptional effort by the police officers involved or the city attorney's office, and there's no guarantee that the district attorney's office would have accepted such a filing.

"It's easier for the cops to file these cases as municipal charges," Judge Satter says. "I've seen attempted murder filed as simple assault."

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