sister article with case by case descriptions
Accused of murder but not in jail
One in four defendants in Fulton County is out on bond awaiting trial
By Bill Torpy and Bill Rankin
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
12:14 p.m. Saturday, October 10, 2009
Jean-Pierre Devaughn carried out a hit for his cousin, killing her husband while he visited Atlanta, police say. The victim had recently bought $500,000 in life insurance.
Matthew Mitchell was furious that a robbing crew invaded his home and terrorized him, his girlfriend and her young son. Five days later, Mitchell and five others found a running buddy of the robbers. They allegedly fired 80 rounds, hitting the man 30 times.
Michael Hunter and Terrance “Spank Nitty” Mewborn went to a Sandy Springs apartment, police say, to settle a beef with Ronnie Davis. They encountered Davis outside his home and killed him with one shot, according to court testimony.
All these men face murder charges in Fulton County. All are free on bond.
They are among about 40 accused killers walking the streets while waiting for their cases to go to trial. They represent almost a quarter of the defendants in Fulton facing murder charges.
Not all of them wait around. Hunter and Mewborn disappeared after posting bond and are fugitives. Gerardo Perez, charged with a drug killing, has vanished and is likely back in Mexico. And Mahboob Pasha, a convenience store clerk charged with killing a man stealing malt liquor, was released to get medical treatment. He fled to Pakistan.
The subject of murder suspects being released on bond became a hot issue in August when, police say, Antoine Wimes, 17, shot a woman in the face and battered her 1-year-old son at her Chattahoochee Hills home.
A year earlier, police said, Wimes strolled into a Cascade Road convenience store, lured the clerk from his protective area by asking for a T-shirt and then shot him twice in the chest and once in the back, killing him.
Wimes was arrested in February and released on $250,000 bond weeks later by Judge Karen Smith-Woodson, a Fulton magistrate who sometimes presides as a Superior Court judge. Wimes was supposed to be homebound, with a GPS monitor strapped to his ankle. But he cut off the device, left the house and committed the home invasion, police said.
Angered, Fulton District Attorney Paul Howard challenged his county’s judges publicly, asking why murder defendants are often granted bond and why magistrate judges, who are not elected, are often the ones granting it. Howard released a list of 43 murder defendants who were released on bond.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution examination of those cases found most defendants were granted bonds of less than $100,000, meaning they could walk out of jail after putting up $10,000 or less. All have pleaded not guilty.
Georgia law sets four questions for judges to consider in bond hearings:
● Is there a significant risk the defendant will flee?
● Is the defendant a threat to the community?
● Is the defendant likely to commit another felony?
● Is there a good chance the defendant will intimidate witnesses or obstruct justice?
Fulton prosecutors almost always object to releasing murder defendants on bond. But that’s part of the problem, said Doris Downs, chief judge of Fulton’s Superior Court.
Prosecutors know their cases better than anyone else, but by consistently opposing bond, they opt out of the decision-making process and make it more difficult for judges to make informed decisions, Downs said.
“Every judge on the Superior Court who’s been here any length of time has had the experience of denying bond when the state claimed to have a very strong case,” she said. “We’ve also experienced discovering a year later at trial that there was no evidence, after holding and incarcerating an individual for a year or more at a time. That weighs heavily on our minds also.”
Deciding whether to grant bond in serious cases is one of the most wrenching decisions a judge must make. “We definitely lose sleep over this,” said Downs, a former Fulton assistant district attorney. “It is our absolute worst nightmare that a citizen would be hurt by someone any one of us felt was entitled to release.”
Downs noted that Superior Court judges have the discretion to appoint magistrate judges to oversee bond hearings and often do because Superior Court judges are handling heavy case loads.
Her remarks angered the district attorney, who said on Friday, “I, like law enforcement officials and 99 percent of the citizens I meet, believe such releases should rarely happen.”
In a statement, Howard said judges are blaming police and prosecutors for their own “seemingly poor judgment.”
Atlanta police Lt. Keith Meadows, head of homicide, was similarly annoyed. “To say we’re presenting weak cases, that’s just disingenuous,” he said.
The homicide unit has a 92 percent conviction rate, Meadows said in an interview Friday.
He acknowledged that there are some murder defendants who may not be a threat, are entitled to bond but don’t get it.
But then there are defendants such as Wimes, he said.
“It should have been apparent that he was a person who never should have been entitled to a bond — that he was a threat,” Meadows said. “There’s just no consistency from one judge to the next.”
In response to a request under the Georgia Open Records Act, the Fulton DA’s office said that, since 2005, it has an 87 percent conviction rate in homicide cases that went to trial and where juries reached a verdict.
Downs’ office pointed out several murder cases since 2007 in which charges were either dismissed, reduced or the defendant was acquitted.
● Wendell Brown was accused of striking and killing a drunken man who was throwing bottles at people. He was denied bond after prosecutors objected. Brown was acquitted after spending a year in jail.
● Monique Bradford shot her husband to death, but evidence indicated it was an accident. She was bonded out over objections and was acquitted after a trial.
● And Jerome Wade was charged with shooting to death a man he had accused of repeatedly burglarizing his home. Wade told police he heard a noise that sounded like a break-in and found Jason Ferrell smashing his car windows with a hammer. Wade was found guilty of being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Gwinnett DA Danny Porter said it is rare for murder defendants in his county to get bond and was surprised so many in Fulton got it. Cobb DA Pat Head, in office a decade, could not recall more than 10 murder defendants in Cobb getting bond. The DeKalb DA’s office said it does not keep statistics on bonds.
Defense attorneys said Howard, in his fourth term in office, is hard-nosed and unyielding in cases involving a death, no matter the circumstances.
They complain that he often brings felony murder charges in cases that don’t warrant them and then refuses to back off. These cases, the defense attorneys say, often involve skimpy evidence, unreliable witnesses or unlikable victims.
“I have had prosecutors tell me they’d rather prosecute a case and lose than go to Paul Howard [with a plea deal] and have him yell at them,” said defense attorney Bruce Morris.
“It clogs up the system,” Morris said. One example, he said, was a client of his, Scott Douglas Taylor, who was charged with murder for a 1998 death. His case ended in a hung jury in 2003.
On Sept. 20, 1998, Naeem Mollette was handing drugs into a vehicle as part of a street sale when the driver hit the gas. Mollette, who was wearing a house arrest monitor, hung on for about 50 feet, fell off and was run over and killed when the driver backed up hurriedly to turn around.
Taylor, the alleged driver, spent a year in jail before he was released on $100,000 bond. He has remained out on bond since his trial in 2003. Morris said the prosecutor was deciding if he should retry the case.
Jean-Pierre Devaughn, charged in the murder-for-hire case, should have been denied bond because the killing was so cold-blooded, prosecutor Linda Dunikoski told Judge Marvin Arrington at a bond hearing.
“This was, ‘Please kill my husband and I’ll give you some money,’” Dunikoski said, noting the victim’s family opposed Devaughn’s release. When it became apparent that Arrington would grant bond, Dunikoski argued for it to be stiff — $500,000.
Too much, Arrington responded. “I don’t know no family, black or white, who got no $500,000 cash money,” he said. “And if you do that, somebody is going out and rob somebody.”
He halved the amount. Devaughn posted bond in July.
On Friday, Arrington said Devaughn was granted a bond before the case was assigned to him because the Fulton DA’s office failed to indict Devaughn within 90 days after his arrest — which gave him an automatic right to a bond. After Devaughn’s indictment, Arrington said, he granted bond because the defendant showed that he would not flee, commit a crime or threaten witnesses.
Matthew Mitchell, a former Atlanta high school basketball star and stepson of State Rep. Tyrone Brooks, was released on $500,000 bond. Family members said he had a job waiting. Prosecutors opposed bond, fearing he would intimidate his former girlfriend, a key witness in the case. They alleged that he had already beaten her up.
Ash Joshi, a former Fulton prosecutor who represents Wimes in the murder case, said at first blush, the number of released murder suspects is “staggering.” But “as you have a greater volume of cases, there will be a number of weak cases. What is frustrating to a prosecutor is you believe a person is guilty but don’t have the evidence. A judge has to act on the evidence.”
Joshi said there were several factors in Wimes achieving bond: “His age, there was not a great deal of evidence and he had good ties to the community.” About 20 relatives attended the hearing. Joshi argued Wimes would not be a threat to the community.
Prosecutor Jack Barrs disagreed. “This was just a person who shot and killed somebody for no reason that’s apparent to the state or anyone else,” Barrs said at a pretrial hearing. “It indicates that there is great concern that he is a danger to the community at large.”
Last week, Joshi was unapologetic, saying he did everything he could to get his client a bond, just as prosecutors fought to oppose it.
“They did their job, and I did mine,” he said.
How we got the story
AJC reporters Bill Torpy and Bill Rankin spent almost a month examining the case files of 43 murder defendants who had been granted bond in Fulton County. They reviewed hearing transcripts, bond orders, indictments, police reports, autopsy reports and court motions. They also interviewed judges, prosecutors, police and defense attorneys about the bond process in Fulton County.
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Edited by Hipple, Long, Ware, & Peete, 11 October 2009 - 10:34 PM.