Courtwatchers keep an eye on justice

Back then, no one stopped to help.

So it brought great comfort to the Midtown resident last year when strangers filled a bench in court to make sure her attacker didn’t once again slip through the cracks.

Ricky Love, a troubled man with a history of arrests and unstable behavior, was sentenced to four years in prison with the judge assuring community members, “he won’t get out of custody without my signature.”

Mullen credits the Fulton County Court Watch for helping ensure that Love was taken off the street.

“I think it made a huge difference,” said Mullen, who has joined the effort. “It created an awareness in court that the community cares, that they are watching and want something done.”

Court Watch was set up through the Fulton County District Attorney’s office in 2006 to be the eyes and ears of the public in the crushingly busy courthouse. District Attorney Paul Howard said he was frequently asked by community groups why repeat offenders kept getting out of jail.

“We were always getting questions, ‘What is going on in the court? How are decisions being made?’ ” Howard said. “So we said, ‘Come on and see for yourself.’ ”

The group now has members from across the county coming to court, wearing their distinctive Court Watch T-shirts and monitoring cases against recalcitrant burglars, dope peddlers and thieves who have often gotten a pass by the court system.

Some members of the group soon will begin rating judges by the toughness — or leniency — of their sentencing and put those ratings on a new web site. They want the public to know judge’s sentencing patterns come election time. And they want judges to think about that the next time they sentence a repeat offender to yet another probation.

“When election time rolls around, most people don’t know who is who, who is more lenient or who goes by the book,” said Adam Brackman, a southeast Atlanta resident who ran for city council in 2009. “Judges who are more aware of the community interest in the case are more likely to hand out appropriate sentences and not be lenient.”

The group’s efforts have gotten support from residents who have criticized the Fulton court system’s “rocket docket,” which was set up to move nonviolent felony cases quickly. The system was created about five years ago to help ease the backlog in cases that caused overcrowding in Fulton County jail. Court Watchers came soon after that.

The district attorney’s office has scores of people on a list and sends out notices of upcoming hearings concerning repeat offenders or cases that garner community interest. New Court Watchers are given a crash course on court proceedings.

Peggy Denby, a court watcher, also leads the Midtown Ponce Security Alliance, a hard-nosed neighborhood group that tracks criminals who plague that neighborhood, some of whom, like Love, have been around for decades. The alliance posts photos of offenders online and pushes city and law enforcement officials to get tough. She sees the rate-a-judge effort as the next logical step for Court Watch.

“The idea is when we get more data, people will be able to search by judge, by type of crime,” she said. “We’re hoping we can get a file up sharing results of all the cases. No one holds them accountable. We’re trying to hold them accountable.”

She added that the group’s presence in court also underlines that a case is not just routine. “It has much impact on the judge,” she said. “After we make our plea, all of a sudden it gets more important. It interrupts the drudgery they go through day after day.”

Some judges, such as Superior Court Judge T. Jackson Bedford, do not allow Court Watchers to wear their T-shirts when visiting their courtrooms.

“I see it as a demonstration, like any other, to influence the decisions of a court,” Bedford said.

He said he considers himself a tough judge and doesn’t change his sentences because the group is in attendance.

“This is not the coliseum; it’s not about thumbs up, thumbs down.

“With the Court Watch system, it seems that it’s an effort to intimidate [judges],” he said.

The judge said he is concerned that any rating system would be anecdotal and subjective.

“What kind of ratings? What’s the objectivity?” he said. “There are so many agendas. It’s an attack on the judges.”

Bedford, who has feuded with Howard and once ordered him taken out of the courtroom in handcuffs during an argument, believes Court Watch is an effort by the district attorney to politically tar the judiciary.

“Some of it is misinformed hysteria fueled by the DA,” said Bedford, who said he encourages the public to sit in on trials and other court business. “But I put the word out that I will not tolerate T-shirts. It’s nothing but a demonstration by the DA’s office, manipulating well-intentioned citizens. [Howard] ought to look at his own shop and the quality of the cases he brings before the courts.”

Howard said he is not behind the proposed judge rating system. “They’ve asked me for years to give them some [rating information] for the judges,” he said. “We said that’s not appropriate for the district attorney’s office to do that. ... For the life of me, I don’t know how a judge can be intimidated by a citizen being in court.”

He said the citizen participation could cut many ways. “They have their eyes on everybody, the defendants, the judges, the prosecutors,” Howard said.

Court Watchers said they have gotten an education at the gritty reality that is Fulton County justice.

Brackman, who lives near Grant Park, said he started attending cases concerning crimes from other neighborhoods “because crime knows no boundaries.”

One such case was that of Donald Shorty, a cocaine addict and repeat burglar from the Cascade Road area. Shorty had 26 arrests, eight felony convictions and a pile of misdemeanors. “However, he’s not spent any length of time in jail,” prosecutor LaDawn Blackett-Jones, who heads the district attorney’s Community Prosecution unit, told the judge.

In 2007, he was sentenced to 90 days in jail on a burglary charge. In 2008, he was nabbed for another burglary but caught a break. Dr. Walker Young, a dentist and brother of former Mayor Andrew Young, was the victim. Walker Young knew Shorty’s family and tried to help him out, advocating for probation and an opportunity for a job.

Shorty never showed up for the job and went back to burglary. He broke into a business and left identifying blood stains behind. Last March, he smashed in a store window and was arrested trying to steal the cash register.

Fulton County Judge Walter Lovett, one of the unelected magistrates hired to help move cases, sentenced him to 20 years to do eight. “This is recidivist time; there is no parole,” he told Shorty, who is now in prison.

Court Watch member Marcia Killingsworth, a southeast Atlanta resident involved with several neighborhood public safety groups, said she started going to court more often in 2009, when there was a rash of smash-and-grab burglaries in the area.

“Burglary is a very invasive crime,” she said. “We felt we were under siege and no one cared.”

After hours watching court proceedings, she still gets angry but can better understand what the court is up against.

“Frankly, it breaks my heart when the judge talks directly to the defendant — especially the younger ones, under 20 [years old] — and you can tell that they don’t understand anything the judge is saying,” she said.

Killingsworth noted she has disagreed with decisions made by Superior Court Judge Alfred Dempsey, a veteran judge. But she later found out his mother had been burglarized.

“He’s been through what we’ve been through,” she said. “He doesn’t need us wagging our fingers in his face.”

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