System Failure

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

Last December, the system had one final opportunity to review Michael Garrett's situation. But the consideration Garrett received at that hearing made all the breaks he'd already been granted -- the plea bargain, the work release, the shortened sentence and early release, the ejection of Johnson from the courtroom and failure to notify her of subsequent proceedings -- seem minor by comparison.

Garrett never reported to probation after his release in September, never signed up for the 36 weeks of domestic-violence classes Crew had ordered him to take. His probation officer sought a warrant for his arrest. He was brought back into Crew's courtroom for a revocation hearing on December 17, after spending two nights in jail.

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 insisted that there was some mistake. "I did my time and everything," he told the judge. "You asked me the question, what did I learn about domestic violence, I told you, you cut me loose.... You didn't give me probation, sir."

Perplexed, Crew studied the case files. Garrett had, in fact, visited him in his clerk's office a few days after the September hearing to check on his status, and Crew had decided to toss out the year's probation on the case for which Garrett had already served 36 days in jail. This unusual ex parte negotiation had occurred without the presence or knowledge of anyone from the city attorney's office. The only record of the decision was a one-line entry placed in the case file in October: "No probation is needed, def. did his jail sentence, per Judge Crew."

But Crew hadn't intended for his generosity to apply to the other two cases in which Garrett had pleaded guilty, for which he was supposed to serve consecutive probation terms. "I was just talking about one case," he said. "I didn't know about the other two cases."

Garrett adopted an air of innocent confusion. He tried to argue that the probation terms were supposed to be concurrent, not consecutive. ("I think Michael Garrett knew how to play the system," observes Project Safeguard's DeFreitas. "He knows the difference between 'consecutive' and 'concurrent.' He's a bit of a con artist.") He reminded the judge of their off-the-record discussion.

"I came back that Monday, when you guys were having a party, and I talked to you about it, to see if I had to have probation," he recalled. "You told me no, I'm done with it. It was back in October -- "

"Don't mention that party," Crew quipped, "because some people may not have been invited."

It was an awkward situation. Garrett had violated his probation and could have been facing up to a year in jail. But Crew had already wiped out one 360-day sentence -- not in a public hearing, but during a brief chat at an office party -- and was puzzling over what to do with the other cases. Assistant City Attorney Chris Ramsey came to his rescue with a decidedly lenient, if expedient, suggestion: Why not allow Garrett to "confess to revocation," without penalty, and start serving his two other probation terms right now?

"Very good recommendation," Crew said. Turning to Garrett, he continued, "I feel I've invited some confusion because I didn't talk to you about those other two cases when I let you out of jail on the first case.... I understand the confusion you have. But these other two cases being alive and well, you need to comply with probation and go to those formal classes."

When he realized that Crew was going to release him, Garrett readily agreed to the arrangement. Significantly, no one from the probation office was in the courtroom to argue in favor of sending Garrett back to jail. Revocation hearings are usually held in Crew's courtroom on Thursday afternoons, but Garrett had been arrested over a weekend and brought into court on a busy Monday morning.

Assistant City Attorney Thomas says his office has since adopted a new policy regarding so-called walk-in revocation hearings. "If somebody is before the court on what is not a normally scheduled probation-revocation hearing day, we'll object to the matter being heard," Thomas says. "We want a probation officer present so that all the information is available in making the decision."

At the conclusion of the hearing, Crew cautioned Garrett that he would face consecutive 180-day jail sentences if he didn't report to probation and complete his DV classes. He scheduled another hearing to review the matter in February and urged Garrett to remind him about the consecutive probations at that time. "You're the man who's keeping track of how many cases you have, not me," he said.

Thomas acknowledges that keeping track of multiple cases is the job of the prosecutor and the judge, not the defendant. He cannot explain why Crew would say he "didn't know" about the other two cases and expect Garrett to remind him, given the county court's computerized tracking system and the cross-referencing indicated in the files of individual cases. "I know that our file makes reference to his other cases, and I would expect that the court's file would contain similar references," Thomas says.

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