She tried to tell them about Michael Garrett. But nobody listened.
She tried to tell them how it was, the threats and the cocaine and all that. How he broke into her house one night after she'd kicked him out for good. How she'd lived in fear ever since, wondering if he would be waiting for her when she got home.
She had the tapes, if anybody wanted to hear them. Nobody did, but she had them, tapes of Garrett's voice on her answering machine, calling her all kinds of names and telling her all the ways he was going to beat her.
"He has done stuff to me," she said. But she never got a chance to explain what the stuff was. How he bit her on the shoulder, dragged her by the hair, struck her in front of the children. How, the night of the break-in, he was waiting for her with a knife.
No, Chanda Johnson didn't get much of an opportunity to explain. In July last year, she sat in the hectic, crowded confines of Denver County Courtroom 117-M -- where justice is served up quick and sloppy, like bowls of gruel doled out to a hungry mob -- and waited for the judge to call her name. When it was her turn, she stood up, a soft-spoken, 29-year-old woman, and tried to tell it all -- despite the room full of strangers, the killer glare of her ex-husband, the impassive faces of the heard-it-all-before court professionals.
She wasn't permitted to step up to the podium and speak into the microphone, like a person who mattered. She had to stand at the gate that divides the participants in the trial process from the spectators and speak her piece from there.
She didn't get very far. Judge Robert B. Crew Jr. interrupted her. Michael Garrett taunted her.
"I had to go buy a gun because I was scared in my own home," she said. "He broke into my house after he left rehab.... I ended up getting out of the house and calling my mother on the cell phone and got out of town. And then he started driving up and down the street at my mother's house.
"He went to his family in Memphis, came back a month later and just had me terrified. He called me the whole time he was in Memphis -- I have this on tape -- he called me the whole time and told me what he was going to do to me. He's had me scared this whole time.... Then he's just daring me to do something about it."
"Girl, if you're going to do it, just do it," Garrett said.
"Let her talk," Judge Crew said.
"He's daring me to do something," Johnson continued. "He calls me at work, harassing me. I put him on speakerphone. Everybody at work hears it, including my boss."
"Are you finished?" Crew asked. "Thank you. You can sit down."
But Johnson wasn't finished. When Garrett started to tell his side, she interrupted him to challenge his claim that she'd sold his Jeep -- it was her Jeep, she insisted. Garrett asked the judge, "Will you make her shut up?"
Crew cautioned Johnson to be silent. And when she spoke up again, so softly as to be almost inaudible on the tape of the hearing, Crew ordered her to leave the courtroom. She was ejected -- not for terrorizing anyone or causing a disturbance, but for speaking out of turn.
She never came back.
Charged with five counts of violating the restraining order Johnson had obtained against him, Garrett took a plea deal that included a jumbo-sized package of suspended sentences, supervised probation and domestic-violence counseling sessions, but little actual jail time. In Colorado, violating a civil restraining order is a crime on par with urinating in public -- less than a misdemeanor -- and Garrett ended up serving only 36 days behind bars. Over the next four months, he violated his probation repeatedly and landed briefly back in jail but was quickly released again, free to do whatever he was going to do.
Garrett got every break imaginable. His victim got ejected from the courtroom.
Chanda Johnson no longer lives in fear. In January she was gunned down in her driveway, shot again and again in front of a horrified eyewitness, a man she'd been dating for six months. Police say that her assailant was Michael Garrett, who rushed to a cousin's house that night, announced that he'd just shot Chanda, then shot himself in the head.
Garrett survived. Johnson died.
Aside from its brutal ending, the Garrett case is fairly typical of the 5,000 domestic-violence cases heard in Denver's county courts every year. Many of the cases involve violations of restraining orders or probation, and there was nothing unusual about the circumstances of Johnson's complaint or the sentence that Garrett received. If the case hadn't ended in murder, no one would have ever paid any attention.
But it did end badly, with the death of one woman and the ruination of several lives. And so the case has prompted internal reviews behind closed doors, from the judge's chambers to the city attorney's office to Project Safeguard, a community advocacy group for battered women. Privately, several people who've studied the matter have acknowledged that it was mishandled, but it's not an opinion they're eager to make public.
In fact, no one connected to the Garrett case is keen on talking about it. A curtain of silence has descended on what happened in Courtroom 117-M last year, as if it never happened at all. Judge Crew declined to comment on the case, other than to say that he was "saddened" by its outcome. City employees involved in the Garrett matter have been instructed to refer all questions to Assistant City Attorney Jim Thomas, who emphasizes the changes in policy his office has made to try to prevent the situation from repeating.
Chanda Johnson's boyfriend and her family declined to talk about her, out of fear of compromising the homicide case against her ex-husband. Similarly, Garrett's public defender offered few comments about her client, citing the upcoming murder trial, scheduled for November.
But court records provide more than a few clues about what went wrong in Crew's courtroom, where Garrett appeared four times in six months. The case is riddled with prosecutorial and judicial missteps, errant procedures involving sentencing and victim notification, breakdowns in communication and wrongheaded assumptions. If so much can go wrong in a "typical" minor case, how many other potentially lethal mistakes are being committed every day?
In some ways, Denver's efforts to curb domestic violence are now suffering from too much success. The city has long been hailed by victims' advocates for being on the cutting edge of domestic-violence prosecutions, as well as for being a pioneer in the shelter movement and mandatory treatment programs for batterers ("Hard Lessons," June 18, 1998). Having widened the net to encompass a vast range of domestic disputes, from the mundane to the horrific, prosecutors now find themselves choking on a caseload that scarcely allows any defendant to receive his hour, let alone his day, in court. Amid all the frenzied plea bargaining -- designed, in part, to keep the jails from bursting -- much of what is important about a case, including the victim's safety, can get lost.
"If I could wish for anything, I would wish that they had more resources in Denver," says Susan DeFreitas, coordinator of a court-monitoring program for Project Safeguard. "More judges. Another courtroom. Less of a caseload for the people who work there. These guys have thirty or forty cases a day sometimes. They're negotiating all over the place."
No court system is flawless, and not every domestic tragedy can be prevented. But Chanda Johnson's efforts to seek protection from Michael Garrett didn't just fall through the cracks; from the outset, the case went haywire, sending the wrong message to both victim and defendant. Some of the confusion may be the fault of Judge Crew, a veteran jurist with his own peculiar style, a way of defusing the incessant grimness of his courtroom that may have backfired in this instance. But DeFreitas and several other observers believe the real culprit is the crush of cases bearing down on judges and prosecutors alike, an overload that transforms courtrooms into bazaars and victims into statistics.
Chanda Johnson deserved better. At the very least, she deserved to be heard.
Michael Garrett and Chanda Johnson were together for almost seven years. In Garrett's view, it was not a bond that could be broken easily. Although he admitted in divorce court that he had made Chanda's life "a living hell," he also claimed a deep attachment to the child he'd had with her, Mychel, as well as Chanda's daughter from a previous relationship, Elonca. Having children changed everything; as he told Judge Crew, it meant that he and Johnson would "be in each others' lives for the rest of our lives."
Doubtless Johnson felt differently about the matter. She'd known disappointment before, knew the challenges of starting over. She had dropped out of high school but later took college-level computer-science courses. According to her divorce lawyer, she had been married before, to a man who is now serving time in the Texas prison system. Various people knew her as Chanda Johnson, Chanda Richardson and, briefly, as Chanda Johnson-Richardson. At the time she became involved with Garrett, she was 23 years old and the sole support of her one-year-old daughter. Garrett was 25 and eking out a living as a truck driver.
In 1995, Garrett was arrested on misdemeanor assault, menacing and domestic-violence charges. The available paperwork doesn't indicate whether Johnson or some other girlfriend was the complainant in the case, but the charges didn't dissuade Johnson from living with Garrett. Their common-law marriage began officially in August that year, the same month that the assault case was dismissed on a motion of the prosecutor.
Mychel was born the following summer. Working as a customer-software administrator for a telecom firm, Johnson made twice as much money as Garrett did in his driving jobs -- when he was working, that is. For long periods of the marriage, he was unemployed and referred to himself as a "stay-at-home parent," but Johnson also paid her mother for help with child care. She also paid the mortgage, as well the cost of movies, trips to the zoo and museums, swimming and gymnastics lessons, and everything else she thought her children should have.
"She was a hardworking girl," says Larry Carroll, her divorce attorney. "She really tried in the relationship to have something of a family, but she was unable to because of his drug use."
By early 2001, the marriage was falling apart -- due, Carroll says, to Garrett's escalating crack use. Money problems had dogged the relationship for some time. (In 1998, Johnson had been charged with shoplifting in what appears to have been a scheme to raise some quick cash by returning pilfered items for a refund; she pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and received six months' probation.) The breaking point came after Johnson discovered that Garrett had forged checks on her account totaling $263.
She says she "put him out" of her house on February 26, 2001. Garrett entered a drug-rehab program at a local hospital, paid for by Johnson's insurance, but left after two days. A few nights later, Johnson came home and found a window broken and a door busted open. All of the lights were off; the television was flickering with the volume turned down. Garrett was waiting for her, she would later say, with a knife in his hand.
She fled. In the request for a temporary restraining order she filed two days later, she described confrontations with her husband in which he'd dragged her by the hair and bitten her. She asked that Garrett be kept at least 1,500 yards away "from wherever I am." Garrett returned to rehab.
Studies indicate that the danger faced by battered women increases when they seek to end the relationship, either by filing divorce papers or seeking protective orders. However, a recent study by the University of Washington suggests that the victim's risk of assault can drop significantly once the process of seeking protection through the courts is followed through. Of course, it doesn't always work that way.
Johnson's restraining order became permanent on April 3, the same day that she filed for divorce. The next day, she came home from work, spotted Garrett outside and called the police. He was gone by the time they arrived. Three days after that, during Elonca's seventh birthday party, he made another unexpected appearance. "Go tell Mommy, Daddy's in the garage," Elonca told one of her guests.
Three more violations of the restraining order were reported over the next two months. There were probably other, unreported contacts. As they waited for the divorce case to make its way through the system, Johnson and Garrett apparently made their own informal arrangements for him to visit the children -- arrangements that Garrett rarely complied with, but that complicated the matter of enforcing the restraining order. Garrett would later claim that Johnson called him on occasion, harassed him and even pulled a gun on him at Elonca's party -- a .380 handgun that she was careful to list among her assets in the divorce filing.
"It's obvious they went through a very tumultuous relationship," says deputy public defender Hollynd Hoskins, who is representing Garrett in the homicide case. "It's a sad situation. There was confusion as to whether he could continue visitation with the children, and it appears that there was an ongoing agreement, regardless of what was going on in court. A person can get a restraining order, but then they feel they can call the other party when they want to. People need to understand it applies to both parties."
But Carroll, Johnson's divorce attorney, says he never had any doubts that his client wanted Garrett to be kept far away from her. "She was very afraid of him," he says. "You could see a change in her demeanor when he entered the courtroom. Just his presence made her tighten up."
That June, following a threatening phone call that constituted his fifth reported violation of the restraining order, Garrett was arrested. Johnson's effort to get him out of her life was now a matter for the courts.
Last year the Denver City Attorney's Office prosecuted more than 4,900 domestic-violence cases. For the most part, these were not felony cases (which are handled by the district attorney) or even misdemeanors; the vast majority of them were filed in Denver's general-sessions courts, which also preside over cases involving petty theft, disturbing the peace, shoplifting, loitering and other municipal-ordinance violations.
The domestic-violence cases piped into general sessions are not the stuff of movies-of-the-week. The plot, what there is of it, usually consists of drunken arguments, restraining-order violations and an occasional bruise. The star players are people who won't stop drinking and don't show up for their court-ordered domestic-violence classes and can't seem to keep appointments with their probation officers. These are small-time dramas, mostly, but there is no shortage of them.
Five thousand cases a year, six prosecutors, three judges. Do the math. That's close to a hundred cases a week, divided among three courtrooms, wedged in among the bar fights and the whizzing-on-the-sidewalk complaints. Everybody is entitled to a trial, but there's no way the system can handle a hundred trials a week, or even twenty. So everybody is offered a deal, and almost everybody takes it. Upwards of 95 percent of the cases never get to trial.
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.
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."
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.
"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.
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.
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?"
"Fine. I'll suspend the balance of your jail time. You're out."
"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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
While her family seeks to hold the city responsible for bungling the case, the man accused of murdering Chanda appeared in district court two weeks ago for his arraignment. Michael Garrett moved slowly, his hands cuffed to an aluminum walker. An ugly, vertical slash of scar tissue could be seen on the back of his skull.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Garrett sat quietly while the lawyers talked, his head bowed to the table. His head rose periodically only to slowly drop again, as if he were dozing fitfully. He seemed to have trouble following the proceedings and winced when spoken to, like the words were giving him a headache. His attorney says he's still suffering the effects of the gunshot wound, including impaired memory.
After a few moments, his not-guilty plea entered and trial date set, Garrett hobbled out of the courtroom. He was never quite there to begin with. Whatever poor excuse for justice he knew had already been accorded to him, worked out between him and his unheeded victim -- not in a courtroom, but in the streets.
Click below to read related stories: