System Failure

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

Crew was handed five skimpy files on a low-level defendant who, as Garrett reminded the judge on more than one occasion, had "never been in trouble with the law before." Like a lot of assertions Garrett made in court, that claim wasn't strictly true. He had no prior convictions, but his 1995 arrest for domestic violence would have been part of the official record available to prosecutor and judge. Yet that arrest was never mentioned in Crew's courtroom, and it seems unlikely that anyone noticed it, allowing Garrett to skate through the proceedings as if he was just one more first-time (albeit multiple) offender.

"Anytime you see that someone has a prior arrest, you can factor that in as an aggravator," says Assistant City Attorney Thomas, manager of the office's prosecutions unit. "Whether that was considered or not, I don't know. My general impression is that this was not the type of case that would be charged as a felony."

So rather than facing a felony beef in district court, Garrett was allowed to plead down his cases in front of Judge Crew. The arrangement wasn't an unusual one, says Project Safeguard's DeFreitas.

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.

"A lot of women don't report everything to the police, so the only information the victim's advocate has is the information that's in the police reports," DeFreitas notes. "It's not uncommon to see this number of violations stay at a city level. Phone harassment is the hardest one to get a conviction, too. It's often a 'he said, she said' thing: Who dialed the phone? And getting the phone records isn't as easy as it looks on TV."

The prosecution's decision to pursue the case at the municipal level may have been routine, but what happened next was odd by anyone's standards. Noting the absence of a prior record, Crew asked Garrett what had gone wrong the past two months, how he'd ended up violating a court order five times. Garrett characterized the whole mess as a dispute over his "visitation rights" with Elonca and Mychel, saying he didn't know how he was supposed to pick up the girls on weekends without Chanda calling the law on him for violating the restraining order.

"We shouldn't even have got out of hand like that," Garrett said. "We ought to be -- we're going to be in each other's lives for the rest of our lives."

Crew discussed the visitation problem with Garrett sympathetically for several minutes, suggesting various ways to mediate the dispute. Temporary orders in the divorce case did allow Garrett limited visitation rights, but he'd failed to take required parenting classes or pay child support ordered in the case. (Permanent orders would soon bar Garrett from any unsupervised contact with the children until he'd completed classes and a substance-abuse evaluation.) And if the judge and the prosecutor had consulted a calendar, they would have seen that most of the restraining-order violations occurred on weekdays -- not, as Garrett claimed, during weekend visitations.

When it was her turn to speak, Chanda Johnson tried to explain as much, saying that the visitations were part of a "verbal agreement" between them, and that Garrett rarely showed up when he was supposed to take the kids, anyway. But both Crew and Garrett interrupted her repeatedly. Garrett insisted on his rights -- "It is a court order. It is a court order," he said -- while Crew seemed intent on arranging a visitation for Garrett before he went to jail on the restraining-order violations.

Johnson stood her ground. "Your honor, I have a question," she said. "He is a crack fiend. On drugs. I don't feel comfortable for my children to be out -- "

"I have already done my rehab," Garrett shot back, interrupting her again. "And what are you?"

Johnson stared him down. "A working mother," she said.

"Okay, that's enough, that's enough," Crew said.

Crew was far less tolerant of Johnson's interruptions than of Garrett's taunting of her. After the exchange over who sold whose Jeep, the judge cautioned her to be quiet. A few seconds later, as Garrett returned to the subject of his visitation rights, claiming that Johnson had pulled a gun on him on Elonca's birthday -- "I mean, I ain't afraid of no gun. I ain't no punk" -- she tried to respond and was ejected.

The rest of the hearing consisted of hammering out the terms of Garrett's plea deal. He had agreed to plead guilty to three counts of violating a court order in exchange for the dismissal of all other charges. The cases involved three separate periods of probation. On the first case, Garrett would receive a sentence of one year in jail, all but sixty days of it suspended, conditional on completing 36 weeks of domestic-violence classes. He would then be on probation for a year in each of the other two cases, with 180-day suspended jail sentences hanging over his head if he failed to comply.

Assistant City Attorney Chris Lujan, widely regarded as a tough and able prosecutor, noted that there was nothing in the record to suggest that the restraining-order violations had anything to do with a dispute over visitation rights. He requested that the probation terms be served consecutively, putting Garrett under the control of the court well into the year 2005.

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