Once again, Gregory Favors faced a long prison term when he stood before Fulton County Judge Walter Lovett in July and pleaded guilty.
But 33 days later, Favors walked out of jail. It was another missed opportunity for the Fulton justice system to hold Favors accountable for his criminal conduct.
It was also the beginning of a series of missteps, missed court appearances and missing warrants that set Favors free again and again, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation has found.
In the end, Favors, roaming the streets of Atlanta two days after Christmas, decided he wasn’t going to make his next court appearance that morning.
Hours later, a state trooper was dead and Favors was charged with his murder. Trooper Chadwick LeCroy had tried to pull over Favors, who had been in and out of jail 18 times, for a broken tailight. After Favors sped away and crashed his Mazda, he opened fire on LeCroy, fatally striking the 38-year-old father of two in the neck, police said.
Since then, this tragedy of errors leading up to LeCroy’s killing has sparked a public outcry. Legislation named after the slain trooper was filed last week to make it harder for some offenders to be released without posting bond. Mayor Kasim Reed, District Attorney Paul Howard and Atlanta Police Chief George Turner have attacked the Fulton court system’s “rocket docket” that puts most nonviolent felony cases, such as Favors’ July case, on a fast-track toward disposition.
Reed, Howard and Turner criticized the use of unelected magistrate judges, such as Lovett, to preside over such cases, saying sentences that are too lenient are being imposed. Last week, a court spokesman said the fast-track will not be suspended, but elected Superior Court judges will begin presiding over cases and supervising the system.
‘He can’t get out early’
The first missed opportunity to give Favors a lengthy prison term occurred July 22.
Lovett, a judge overseeing cases on the rocket docket established four years ago to expedite the handling of nonviolent felony cases, convened the hearing. There, he announced that Favors’ guilty plea to crimes committed in February and June was “non-negotiated,” meaning Favors would plead guilty with no set agreement for his sentence.
Lovett told Favors he could withdraw his plea if he was not satisfied with his sentence, but he’d get just five minutes to think it over. Otherwise, “whatever sentence I impose is your sentence,” Lovett said, according to a transcript of the plea hearing.
Assistant District Attorney John Nichols told Lovett that in February, police had suspected Favors was casing a neighborhood plagued by burglaries, driving slowly and pausing in front of houses. When police tried to pull him over for a broken taillight, Favors sped off. The officers later found Favors’ Honda smashed into a utility pole.
In June, Favors was arrested again after police said they saw him making a drug deal. When officers identified themselves, Favors put a baggie in his mouth, swallowed it and took off running, they said. He was arrested and subdued with pepper spray. A bag of crack was found in his car.
Nichols told Lovett about Favors’ extensive criminal history, including a federal conviction. In 2001, Favors was sentenced to 62 months in federal prison on an illegal firearm possession charge. After his release, Favors violated his probation by testing positive for drugs. In 2006, a federal judge sentenced Favors to an additional nine months in prison.
Since then, Favors had at least three more convictions, including one for forgery in Cobb and others for drug possession and illegal firearms in Fulton.
Favors, 30, has two minor children and had been working for a home improvement company, his lawyer, Scott Fortas, told Lovett.
As for the utility pole, the pictures did not show much damage, and Favors denied eating the baggie, Fortas said. As for the crack found in his car, “Was it Mr. Favors’ hit of crack? Was it someone else’s in the car?”
Fortas said he was “not making light of the cases, but the gravity of the cases is just not that intense.” He asked the magistrate to give Favors five years on probation, a fine and drug and alcohol treatment.
The DA’s office wanted Favors to be classified as a recidivist and receive a 30-year sentence, with four years in prison and the rest on probation.
Lovett, who declined to comment for this story, sentenced Favors for the drug possession charge to 30 years on probation, with 60 days of that to be spent behind bars. The judge imposed lesser sentences for other offenses and let them run concurrently.
The judge then instructed Favors’ case manager to make sure Favors served the entire sentence. “No parole,” Lovett said. “This 60 days is 60 days. He can’t get out early.”
But Lovett also gave Favors credit for the 27 days he had already spent in jail before entering his guilty plea. In essence, what could have been at least four years behind bars became just 33 days.
‘They can do whatever they want to do’
Favors dodged a second threat of serious prison time when his probation violations went unaddressed.
After Lovett imposed the sentence, Department of Corrections probation officers in both Cobb and Fulton should have filed warrants to revoke Favors’ probation from earlier convictions because a condition of his probation was to not commit another crime. It would have been easy to find him, at least until Aug. 24 when he walked out of jail.
Lovett had told Favors during his hearing it was possible he could be sent back to prison for the four years remaining on his probation. On May 12, Favors had been sentenced in Cobb to five years on probation for forgery. In March 2009, he received five years on probation in Fulton for possession of cocaine and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
“He’ll accept it, judge,” Fortas said of the 60-day sentence, not giving Favors the five minutes to make up his mind. As for the possible probation violations in Fulton and Cobb, he said, “He’ll have to find out what happens. ... They can do whatever they want to do.”
Lovett could not revoke Favors’ probation for his other sentence handed down in February. That case was before Superior Court Judge Kimberly M. Esmond Adams, who had issued orders saying that if a warrant was issued to revoke the probation of an offender on her docket, she would be the judge to handle it.
Probation warrants were never issued against Favors in Fulton or Cobb, court records show. He never appeared before Adams.
The state Department of Corrections, which has probation officers overseeing offenders in state courts, could not explain what went wrong.
In a statement last week, the agency said, “While it appears that some of Mr. Favors’ subsequent criminal offenses may have occurred while under supervision, the Department of Corrections is conducting a comprehensive review of his probation cases out of the two judicial circuits to determine if violations did occur and what actions, if any, should be taken.”
‘Does appear to be a flight risk’
There was one more chance to keep Favors in jail.
Favors was arrested again on Dec. 10, this time for trying to break into a car.
When he was brought before Magistrate Judge Roy Roberts, a pretrial services officer recommended against releasing him on bond.
At that point, Favors had told police his name was Manuel Frazier, according to court records. The pretrial services officer also noted that because “Frazier” had refused to be interviewed, the information he was giving could not be verified. “He does appear to be a flight risk,” the officer said.
After waiting in jail for three days, Favors was brought to court Dec. 13, more than 48 hours after his arrest, in violation of a 1991 U.S. Supreme Court decision. Not only that, the Atlanta police officer who made the arrest did not appear in court.
Chief Superior Court Judge Cynthia Wright has said that for those reasons, Roberts released Favors on a signature bond, without having to put up any money to guarantee his return to court.
Without a witness to show probable cause for the arrest, Roberts had no choice.
Asked Thursday why the arresting officer did not appear in court, Sgt. Curtis Davenport, an Atlanta police spokesman, said, “This incident is under internal investigation and we will not comment until the findings are determined.”
The next time Favors was due in court, at 9 a.m. on Dec. 27, he didn’t show up. Later that day, he was arrested in the trooper’s slaying.
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com