Mayor Reed chooses wrong partner for reforming Fulton County courts

Last week, Mayor Kasim Reed came out swinging against the mismanagement of the Fulton County Courts in a grandstanding move calculated to make the most of public outrage in the aftermath of the slaying of a state trooper.

After a year of trying to slash public safety workers’ pensions, pouring money into turning recreation centers into youth centers and schmoozing foreign royalty, Reed finally had a prime opportunity to reassert himself as a pro-police mayor by assailing the courts.

There is little argument to be made in defense of the courts. To be sure, the judges are sorely lacking in judgment. But the partner Reed chose to help him tag-team them is every bit as guilty of failing the citizens: District Attorney Paul Howard.

Howard was elected district attorney in 1996 and took office in January 1997. During his tenure, Fulton County’s justice system has become infamous for its “revolving door”—its documented practice of dumping criminals back on the streets before they’ve been punished for their offenses against society. These offenders often commit crimes while they are out on bond awaiting adjudication of a previous infraction. The man accused of killing Georgia State Patrol Trooper Chadwick LeCroy on Dec. 28, was one of these rapidly-revolving cases. Gregory Favor’s arrest for LeCroy’s killing was at least his 18th arrest, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

According to a statement from Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Cynthia Wright, “on December 10, 2010, Favors and a co-defendant, Mr. Larry Brown, were arrested by the Atlanta Police Department. Mr. Favors was arrested for the offenses of Entering Auto, Possession of Cocaine, Possession of Tools to Commit a Crime and Obstruction. Mr. Brown was charged with Possession of Tools to Commit a Crime and Party to a Crime. Both were taken to the Fulton County Jail.”

But, Wright says, Favors had to be released on Dec. 13 because federal law says an arrestee must have a probable cause hearing within 48 hours of arrest and “he had been incarcerated pursuant to his warrantless arrest for more than 48 hours. When he appeared before the magistrate, no warrant had yet been obtained and the arresting officer was not present. Under those circumstances the magistrate before whom Mr. Favors appeared had no alternative but to comply with Georgia Law and the Constitution. For that reason, Mr. Favors was released.”

So far in the saga, you might say, there was no place for the DA to do anything about Favors’ release, the arrestee at that point was simply another Fulton County criminal salmon returning, as moved by instinct, to its traditional spawning grounds—the Fulton County courts—to leap merrily over obstacles and return, stronger for the battle, to the streets.

But why, then, are there other court systems in Georgia that also harbor lenient judges, that don’t serve as stopovers for thugs on their way to the next crime? Because other counties have strong, pro-law district attorneys who work with the police and the judges to keep dangerous people off the streets. They set a certain tone throughout their county that says “Criminals will not be tolerated” and they are plugged in enough to their courts to be able to flag cases like Favors who had well over a dozen arrests, including a charge of obstruction (which is a red flag indicating contempt for law enforcement).

Howard has supposedly been prosecuting on behalf of the citizens for 13 years, and yet during that time the courts have become a laughingstock. Helplessness in the face of ineffective or ignorant judges could be understood if he were a rookie, but he’s not.

He’s had more than a decade to have a positive influence on the courts. As the district attorney, Howard could have asked the governor to issue an executive order to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to investigate anything about the courts that didn’t look right. He could have empanelled an austere group of hard-core legal eagles to review the courts and offer recommendations. A district attorney is an extremely powerful individual. If Howard had sincerely wanted to be a game changer, he would have been by now.

Police officers reading this will likely be reminded of Howard’s attempt to get Atlanta Police officer Ray Bunn convicted of murder after he shot a man in self-defense in 2002 when the man tried to run him over with an SUV in Buckhead. Atlantans familiar with the condition of Buckhead’s nightclub scene at the time—it was a magnet for crime—won’t be surprised that someone was killed in a confrontation with cops. And, cop-watchers who may be skeptical of Bunn’s innocence should keep in mind that one of the chief complaints against cops who abuse their authority is that they don’t identify themselves as police officers—that was the case in the more recent AOD raid on the Atlanta Eagle bar—however, Bunn and his partner Terry Mulkey quite vividly identified themselves as police officers: they turned on the blue lights of their car and jumped out shouting “Police, police, stop!” when they heard a car alarm go off and observed a man jumping into the window of an SUV. They were also wearing shirts emblazoned with “Atlanta Police.”

According to court documents, the officers stood in front of the exit of the parking lot and, with guns drawn, again demanded that the driver stop. It initially looked as though he were going to do so, putting the vehicle in reverse. As the officers advanced toward the Chevy Tahoe, however, the driver suddenly floored it. Mulkey managed to get out of the way. Bunn was injured but fired a shot toward the driver. It hit and killed him.

In 2005, in a display of craven pandering for the anti-cop vote, District Attorney Howard led the Fulton County Grand Jury to indict Bunn for the murder of the SUV driver, Corey Ward, and even after the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in September of this year that Bunn could not be tried for the killing because he acted in self-defense, Howard vowed to appeal.

Bunn told WSB Channel 2 at the time of the supreme court’s ruling a few months ago that he believed Ward’s family had been given misleading information by prosecutors and he was sorry that they had been forced by the D.A. to go through the grief of Ward’s death all over again.

Reed’s teaming up with District Attorney Howard to “reform” the courts is like partnering with Miley Cyrus to reform the perception of pop starlets as vacuous objects—such an effort would get a lot of attention, but would send a confusing message. Howard is part of Fulton County’s injustice problem. Reed’s partnering with him to reform the courts is a cynical attempt to make political hay on the grave of a law enforcement officer—just as Howard attempted to garner votes by exploiting a family’s grief to prosecute a cop for doing his job. –Stephanie Ramage