The sentence being offered to Deandre Tucker was unusual, to the point of shocking: 85 years on probation followed by 20 years of incarceration. This meant Tucker, then 18, was to report to prison at age 103.
It was also the chance of a lifetime. On that day, July 21, 2016, Tucker faced up to 145 years in prison for crimes he’d committed in the past few years.
The judge offering this extraordinary deal — probation first; prison, maybe never — told Tucker what was at stake.
“This is it,” Fulton County Superior Court Judge Shawn LaGrua said. “Today you make the decision about whether you go to your grave in prison or you don’t.”
Tucker took the deal.
LaGrua oversees a program designed to divert violent young offenders from a lifetime of crime and incarceration, setting them instead on the path to redemption and rehabilitation.
But Tucker would eventually crash and burn. A little more than a year later, he was committing more crimes, including the attempted armed robbery of a pharmacy in East Point, police said.
Despite LaGrua’s warning, Tucker was allowed to return to the streets. Even with a serious criminal history, even with new charges of violence, he repeatedly walked out of jails. The mistakes that enabled him to do that kept piling up, one after another, exposing fractures in metro Atlanta’s balkanized criminal justice system.
“Wow, wow, wow,” Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter said, when told how Tucker repeatedly slipped through the cracks. “Clearly based on the charges and the dispositions of his cases, he’s a dangerous criminal.”
Gangs, guns and armed robbery
Tucker grew up in southeast Atlanta near South View Cemetery. He finished the 10th grade at Forrest Hill Academy. His social media pages included photos of him holding guns and hanging out with fellow members of the Nine Trey Billy Bad Ass gang, prosecutors said. He was 16 when he embarked on the crimes that would land him in LaGrua’s court.
On Dec. 30, 2013, eight masked gunmen walked into the high-end Fly Kix clothing store in Castleberry Hill. Tucker was one of them. They brandished their weapons, forced store employees and customers to the floor and left with more than $25,000 in clothing, shoes and cash.
Even though he was a juvenile, Tucker would be charged as an adult with armed robbery, one of Georgia’s “seven deadly sin” crimes. That meant Tucker, if convicted, faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison with no chance of parole.
But he wasn’t finished.
In April 2015, he jumped into a 2008 Toyota Camry at a BP gas station and sped away. Three months later, while a woman was filling up her 2006 Cadillac SRX, Tucker slid into the driver’s seat, turned on the ignition and fled. He was soon arrested by police after abandoning the stolen car on an I-20 exit ramp.
Most of Tucker’s cases were assigned to LaGrua, a former prosecutor who has sat on the Fulton bench since 2009.
Part cheerleader, part taskmaster
In her years on the court, LaGrua became alarmed by the growing numbers of young — and violent — offenders appearing before her. So instead of sending them all away to prison, she enlists a chosen few to join My Journey Matters, the unique diversionary program she founded.
Those who graduate are not only spared prison time, they can walk out of court with a clean record.
It takes years to graduate. Participants must adhere to curfews. They must hold a job or go to school and maintain a B average. They must write monthly book reports to be turned in at mandatory court hearings. They are subjected to random drug tests.
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In a room adjoining her courtroom, LaGrua has shelves of books and donated clothing for job interviews.
LaGrua is part cheerleader and stern taskmaster during her My Journey Matters court hearings. She is assisted by a social worker, police officers, a public defender and even the prosecutors assigned to her courtroom. LaGrua has reveled in the success of some defendants and thrown the book at those who’ve failed.
‘You don’t deserve this chance’
In July 2016, when Tucker stood before LaGrua ready to plead guilty, he admitted he was scared. But he also told the judge he thought she could help him.
“To be very honest, Mr. Tucker, you don’t deserve this chance with this history, okay,” she said, referring to his criminal record. “You really don’t.”
“I understand,” he replied.
LaGrua then told Tucker she wasn’t ready to give up on him.
“But if you don’t get through this time you’re not going to give me any choice,” she said. “The last thing I want to do is put you in prison for the rest of your life, but … that’s not my choice at this point. This is on you.”
“I understand, ma’am,” Tucker replied.
LaGrua then turned to Rene Rockwell, Tucker’s defense attorney.
“Ms. Rockwell, you look like you want to say something?” the judge asked.
“No, I’m praying, judge,” Rockwell answered.
“So am I,” LaGrua said. “Alright, Mr. Tucker. You’re going to be with me for a very, very long time until I’m convinced that there is no chance you’re going to get into trouble.”
LaGrua then handed down the “backloaded” sentence to Tucker, which she often does for her My Journey Matters participants.
Tucker would first have to spend six months in a detention center, then report back to LaGrua within seven days after his release. He did.
A new job and a girlfriend
Tucker started reading. James Patterson’s novels were his favorites. During one court hearing, he and another participant debated the pros and cons of hip hop music.
Court records show Tucker complied with his probation conditions for several months.
During that time, he’d found a job with a demolition company and had a girlfriend and a place to live, his mother, Deondra Tucker, said.
But Deandre Tucker’s past caught up with him. A background check by the demolition company’s insurer found Tucker’s prior offenses and he was laid off, his mother said.
It didn’t take long for Tucker to go off the rails.
On Jan. 25, 2018, a woman working at an East Point pharmacy saw three masked men approaching the front door. After she locked the door and called 911, the men fled in a silver Mercedes. A police officer soon spotted it speeding by. It was followed by a black and silver Crown Victoria.
The officer lost sight of the Mercedes but caught up to the Crown Vic after it had a wreck. Tucker was one of the four men inside. He was wearing plaid pajama pants, which matched those worn by one of the masked men caught on security video outside the pharmacy, police said.
Police found a .40 caliber Glock handgun inside the Crown Vic and an assault rifle with a loaded clip, a ski mask, gloves and cash in the trunk.
Tucker now faced an attempted armed robbery charge while he was on probation. It now appeared that a day of reckoning — and a stiff prison sentence — soon awaited him.
He was booked into the East Point jail.
Serious prison time awaits
Fulton County prosecutors quickly filed notice they’d seek recidivist punishment because of Tucker’s prior convictions. This meant Tucker would have to serve every day of the prison sentence he’d get if convicted of the new attempted armed robbery charge.
So when would Tucker join the free world again? Ten years? Twenty years? Longer than that?
Try just a few days.
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On Jan. 29, 2018, a Fulton County judge denied Tucker the chance to post bond, saying he was too dangerous and could commit another felony or intimidate witnesses before trial.
Hours later, however, Tucker’s defense lawyer, Manny Arora, appeared before another judge and showed that authorities had failed to get Tucker before a judge within three days of his arrest. This violated a deadline set by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The judge agreed and granted Tucker an $80,000 signature bond. This meant he only had to sign for it. He didn’t have to put up any money. He soon walked out of jail, even though he was serving decades on probation for several serious felonies and was facing a new one as well.
Deputy Chief Russell Popham of the East Point Police Department said his officers, who are well aware of the appearance deadline, brought Tucker to court with plenty of time to spare. The delay occurred when Fulton prosecutors took additional time to add more charges, he said.
District Attorney Paul Howard did not respond to written questions seeking comment. Fulton has long faced scathing criticism for allowing offenders with long rap sheets back out on the streets to commit more violent crimes.
Tucker had drawn an incredibly lucky break. But he’d soon find himself in trouble again.
‘This is a glaring loophole’
Less than two weeks later, a Clayton County police officer pulled over a red 2002 Honda Accord because it had a stolen tag.
Tucker was one of three men inside the car. They were arrested after police found marijuana stashed in the the center console. Tucker was also charged with giving police a false name.
He was put in Clayton County jail and soon appeared before yet another judge. But a criminal history sheet prepared for the hearing said Tucker was not on probation.
For this reason, Tucker was granted a $4,000 appearance bond on March 6, 2018. It required him to put up some collateral. It also allowed him to walk free once again.
Clayton Solicitor Tasha Mosley said her check of the Georgia Crime Information Center, a database of criminal histories maintained by the GBI, had a glaring omission. While it showed Tucker was facing criminal charges in Fulton, it had not been updated to show he’d been convicted of them, she said.
“If the court had known this, they would have set a higher bond or no bond at all,” said Mosley. “This is a glaring loophole, and we’ve have got to somehow fix it. If not, there are going to be more guns out on the street.”
That’s exactly what happened next, authorities said.
‘We’ve had some success stories’
On April 7, 2018, just weeks after his release in Clayton, Tucker was arrested once again, this time in Gwinnett County. He was charged with smashing the windows of three cars and stealing semi-automatic pistols and multiple magazines of ammunition that were found inside.
Tucker was charged with breaking and entering, theft, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and illegal possession of oxycodone.
This time, Tucker ran out of cracks to fall through. An investigator assigned to the case noticed the charges in Fulton and, after making inquiries, discovered Tucker had not only pleaded guilty to serious felony offenses, he was serving 85 years on probation.
Tucker was denied bond and kept behind bars.
“I personally have never seen anything like it,” Porter, the longtime Gwinnett district attorney, said of LaGrua’s backloaded sentence. “I think she was trying to give this guy a chance, but I think it should have taken less than two years to determine he’d squandered that chance.”
If the system had worked the way it’s supposed to, Porter said, “he’d wouldn’t be in my jail, he’d be in the Fulton County jail.”
Tucker was not transferred to the Fulton jail because the probation officer overseeing the case did not move to revoke the probation LaGrua had imposed back in 2016. No revocation motion was filed until this past May, almost one year and five months after Tucker was arrested for the attempted armed robbery in East Point.
Brian Tukes, a spokesman for the Department of Community Supervision, which oversees probation, said state law prohibits him from providing information about specific cases.
LaGrua also declined to discuss Tucker’s case, citing ethics rules that prohibit judges from talking about cases before them. But she said she intends to stick with her program.
“We’ve had some wonderful success stories,” she said. “And there are going to be times we have defendants we can’t do anything with. I know it’s not going to look good for me. But I’m willing to take some chances.”
‘It’s a sad day, Mr. Tucker’
On June 3, Tucker appeared before LaGrua once again. This time, it was for a hearing to revoke his probation and send to him prison.
“It’s a sad day, Mr. Tucker,” LaGrua said. “I tried very hard to get you on the right path. I still see hope in you, but it’s time to turn a page.”
The judge then approved an agreement reached by a Fulton prosecutor and Tucker’s defense attorney: 15 years in prison for violating his probation. (The new charges Tucker faces in Fulton, Clayton and Gwinnett are still pending.)
When informed Tucker was now 21, LaGrua told him he’d still be relatively young when released from prison.
“You can spend your time wisely or don’t spend it wisely,” she said. “Join a gang or get an education and learn a trade. Those are your choices. … It’s too late today, but it’s not too late for your future.”
Tucker thanked LaGrua and apologized for his failures.
When LaGrua asked Tucker if he had anything else to say, he said he did.
“Could I get a book?” he asked.
LaGrua looked down at the young man who’d wasted every opportunity she’d given him. Then, with an encouraging smile, she nodded and a prosecutor walked back to the adjoining room. He returned with a James Patterson novel Tucker had yet to read.