System Failure

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

Given yet another "last chance," Garrett failed to report to probation. He didn't keep his February court date, either. By that time he was in a locked ward at Denver Health Medical Center, recovering from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

Barely a month after the December hearing, in the early hours of January 20, Chanda Johnson returned home from a friend's birthday party. Her boyfriend followed in a separate car, as he often did, to make sure that she arrived home safely. They were talking outside the garage when a man with a gun walked up the driveway and "started shooting like crazy," the boyfriend told the Rocky Mountain News.

The boyfriend pulled Johnson to the ground and tried to shield her. The assailant drew close and fired three more times, but he was out of bullets. "I got you, bitch, I fucking got you," the man said, then drove off.

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.

Johnson was pronounced dead at University Hospital. The police found Garrett shortly afterward, bleeding from the head outside his cousin's house.

The exact sequence of events that night remain in dispute. According to Garrett's attorney, witness statements indicate there may have been an argument before the driveway shooting and that Johnson was also armed. But Denver police sources say that no gun was found with Johnson and that the attack came out of nowhere.

"It was an ambush-type thing," says police spokesman Lieutenant Jon Priest. "He waited for her. When she got home, he shot her."

Susan DeFreitas remembers seeing the case listed on the court docket last summer: Garrett, Michael, five restraining-order violations. As coordinator of Courtwatch, a program launched by Project Safeguard that uses volunteers to track domestic-violence cases through the courts, DeFreitas has a keen interest in potentially high-risk, "red flag" cases, and five violations of a restraining order struck her as red-flag material.

But DeFreitas didn't make it to the hearing that day. Nor did anyone else from Courtwatch. After Johnson's murder, DeFreitas ordered transcripts of all of Garrett's hearings and tried to figure out what had happened. She met privately with Judge Crew and others involved to discuss possible changes in procedure. She was particularly troubled by the treatment Chanda Johnson had received, having to address the court from the gallery and then being ejected for speaking up at the wrong moment.

A judge has every right to keep order in his courtroom, DeFreitas notes. Nevertheless, "I think a victim should be in the courtroom," she says. "I was concerned that she was kept at the gate."

But DeFreitas is reluctant to discuss the Garrett matter in any detail with a reporter. Project Safeguard has a "working relationship" with court officials and doesn't want to offend them, she explains.

"Part of my hesitancy in talking to you is that I feel like some good things happened out of this," she says. "I've seen better sentencing, the victims coming to the podium, more careful review of [criminal] history. I really feel that there has been some good that's happened, and I'm afraid that, if there's an article, it might go back to the way it was."

DeFreitas praises the people who work in Denver's domestic-violence courts as dedicated professionals who "do the best they can" with limited resources. This year they have a new weapon at their disposal, a technological innovation derived from global positioning satellite (GPS) technology. Denver now has approximately sixty offenders -- most of them on probation for domestic-violence offenses such as violating restraining orders -- on GPS monitoring systems. Unlike the conventional ankle bracelet, the GPS equipment allows probation officers to track the offender's movements and can automatically page a victim if the offender strays into a forbidden area, such as the victim's neighborhood.

"If we could have had somebody like Michael Garrett on GPS monitoring, particularly from the December hearing on, that might have made a difference," DeFreitas says.

But GPS is just another tool in the arsenal; like a restraining order, it's useless unless properly applied and enforced. The courts can't offer absolute protection to anyone, any more than they can determine with precision which low-level offenders are going to become violent.

"There are so many hundreds of cases coming in, and it's so hard to pigeonhole human conduct," says Judge Satter. "Every judge creates his or her own system for dealing with the situation."

Like every judge, he's released people on bond who went on to commit further crimes, Satter says. He's also given defendants another chance, over the vigorous protests of the domestic-violence professionals, and seen them successfully complete their probation and lead productive lives. "Most of the time, we're successful," he adds.

But "most of the time" isn't good enough for Chanda Johnson's family. The mistakes in her case -- mute prosecutors, an absent victim, a one-year sentence that disappears without a public hearing, and much more -- are so plentiful as to raise questions about the soundness of the entire system. Last month the family's attorney filed notice of intent to sue the City of Denver over the death of Chanda Johnson on behalf of her daughters, eight-year-old Elonca and six-year-old Mychel.

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