System Failure

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

Judge Crew agreed. But he also decided to grant Garrett work release during his jail time -- in other words, he'd be allowed to continue working during his sixty-day sentence, reporting to jail only at night and on weekends. Such leeway is almost never offered in domestic-violence cases unless the victim specifically requests it because of the family's dependency on the offender's paycheck. Johnson hadn't asked for work release, but Lujan didn't argue against it. ("Our policy is to oppose work release unless the victim is in favor of it," says Assistant City Attorney Thomas. "I wasn't aware that he was on work release.")

In fact, the only person urging Crew to keep Garrett out of jail was Garrett himself. Crew gave him a week to "get your affairs in order" before he'd have to report to the sheriff. "You've got to stay cool," the judge told Garrett, indicating the door through which Johnson had exited. "Go out that door, and don't say anything if those ladies are all out there. I don't want there to be any trouble."

Garrett didn't keep his end of the deal. He failed to report to the jail the following Monday morning, as he was supposed to, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. It was canceled that afternoon, after he showed up at Crew's clerk's office and begged for another week. He didn't show up the following week, either, leading to another arrest warrant. This one was canceled, too, after he submitted a hand-scrawled letter to the judge explaining that he'd run into some problems on the road as part of his job.

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.

Garrett finally turned himself in late in August, leading to another hearing in Crew's courtroom. After listening to Garrett's mumbled excuses about getting his dates mixed up, Crew decided to send him to jail for a month, then set a reconsideration hearing. He ordered Garrett to take domestic-violence classes in the jail.

"Come in and show me you've done your classes," Crew said. "Tell me what you've learned, and I might consider getting you back to your original deal, where 300 days are suspended on the condition of [additional] domestic-violence classes."

On September 28, after a month in jail, Garrett appeared before Crew a third time. He dutifully reported what he'd learned from his jailhouse classes, as if reciting a catechism: "I just learned that domestic violence destroys the whole structure of the family.... It's not worth it. It's costly, and it's doing it to the whole family."

"What are you going to do if she doesn't do something right?" Crew asked. "If she burns the toast?"

Garrett responded that there wouldn't be a next time, since the divorce became final in August. Crew pressed him: "Give me one way that you're trying to keep your temper under control."

"I think before I act or react," Garrett said. "Use caution with words. Very cautious with words."

"Can I trust you not to be in trouble again?"

"Yes, sir."

"Fine. I'll suspend the balance of your jail time. You're out."

"Thank you."

"You're welcome. Nice job in completing those classes."

By being very cautious with words and giving the right answers, Garrett managed to turn a year's sentence into one month. The prosecutor was even more cautious; he or she didn't say a single word during the perfunctory three-minute hearing. (The record of the September hearing is so sketchy that even Jim Thomas isn't certain which member of his staff was present.)

Chanda Johnson didn't say anything, either, for the simple reason that she wasn't there. Not during the August or September hearings and not in December -- when, after failing to report to probation or attend any more classes, Garrett was arrested again and faced possible revocation. It doesn't appear that Johnson was notified of any of these proceedings.

Colorado's victims'-rights law requires that victims be notified when offenders are scheduled for trial, sentencing or possible release, but the law exempts municipal prosecutions. "Our caseloads are so heavy that the requirements [of notification] would be unduly burdensome," explains Thomas. "But we try to give the best service we can."

The city attorney's office does send out letters to victims, explaining how they can register for a computerized system operated by the county jail that lets them know by phone when a perpetrator is released. It's not clear whether Johnson ever received such a letter, though. "The victim's advocate doesn't have any recollection of having any contact with her," says Thomas. "It's not a normal practice by our office to make that contact."

Records from her divorce case indicate that Johnson was told in August that Garrett had violated his probation and would have to serve out the 360-day jail sentence Crew had imposed but suspended. That was certainly the understanding of Judge Robert Hyatt, the judge assigned to the divorce case, and of Carroll, Johnson's attorney. Actually, except for a brief detour in December, Garrett had been on the streets ever since Crew told him he was "out" at the September reconsideration hearing.

"Our records show that he wasn't supposed to be released until March 18, 2002," says Carroll. "We were shocked when Chanda's mother called us and told us that Chanda had been murdered."

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