System Failure

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.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast