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Torpy at Large: Arrest-release-repeat and enough blame to go around

When Terry Kelley bolted from Atlanta cops last month, he had good reason. Plenty of good reasons.

For one, he was a convicted felon with lots of stolen loot in his car, including guns, a real no-no.

He was on probation for a 2011 robbery that ended in the death of a fellow robber.

He was also on probation for trying to sledgehammer his way into a Cobb County Walgreens in May 2017.

He was still out on bond for a July 2017 arrest in Cobb, where he was charged with being a felon in a car with three guns, including an AK-47. Yep, that arrest came just a month after he bonded out in June 2017 on the sledgehammer caper.

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And he was wearing an ankle monitor, presumably because he was still out on bond for the Cobb AK-47 arrest.

I know, there’s a lot in the previous paragraphs for you to ponder. Kelley, 28, was one of the suspects that Atlanta Police Department brass complained about recently while they pointed fingers at Fulton County judges and said “Stop letting trouble-makers roam free!”

In fact, a deputy chief said Buckhead’s crime rate dropped after Kelley and his buddy were slapped into cuffs.

“It’s bad when you see an ankle monitor on a guy you’re arresting,” said Lt. Steve Zygaj. “It’s just a piece of jewelry if you’re not monitoring it.”

The “jewelry” will help cops piece together Kelley’s whereabouts during the alleged crime spree. It didn’t, however, prevent it.

The arrest was the latest in the bizarre and frustrating snapshots coming from the local justice industry. And it shows that Fulton, while being an infamous revolving door, is not the only one to blame for letting this most recent ne’er-do-well roam free. Cobb owns a chunk of it.

A spurt in home burglaries, car break-ins and car thefts in Buckhead this year has generated a circular firing squad in political and law enforcement spheres.

It started last month when former councilwoman and serial mayoral candidate Mary Norwood took APD to task for the crime wave, questioning how the department categorizes crimes. The stats, she wrote, do not “correspond with the overwhelming anecdotal evidence shared by everyday citizens.”

Police Chief Erika Shields fired back, saying she was “sickened” by Norwood hinting that the books were being cooked and using her brave officers as “political pawns.”

Some police higher-ups then took aim at Fulton courts, making note of how a 17-year-old arrested for several break-ins and car thefts was released without having to put up cash bond.

Atlanta police Maj. Barry Shaw fired off an email to residents taking aim at what he calls a lax judicial system. WSB-TV screen grab

“This is a perfect example of what is broken in Fulton County,” Maj. Barry Shaw wrote in an email to residents. Perps just don’t fear getting caught in Fulton County, he wrote, “and this needs to change.” He hinted at putting pressure on the judges.

Chief Magistrate Judge Cassandra Kirk bristled a bit, writing in a press release: “While it is unfortunate that another entity pledged to serve the public thought it more appropriate to inflame, rather than address the issue productively, I welcome the increased accountability that this brings for all of us involved in the process — particularly judges and law enforcement.”

The Fulton Superior Courts weren’t talking, so I then reached out to retired Judge Wendy Shoob, who has clashed with Fulton District Attorney Paul Howard. She laid part of the blame back on his office.

Retired Fulton County Judge Wendy Shoob. (Brant Sanderlin / AJC file)

Shoob said Howard is a micro-manager who drives away talent, leaving relatively inexperienced lawyers in courtrooms, afraid to carve out workable deals. She said relatively green prosecutors push for tough sentences because that’s what their boss wants, but defendants won’t agree to such sentences in a plea bargain. This, she said, ends up pushing cases toward trial and keeps the court’s calenders clogged.

Intractable prosecutors, mandatory minimums, recidivist laws that are often overly harsh and a lack of services to treat young offenders all make it difficult to mete out justice, she said.

“The judges are caught in the middle,” Shoob said. “The judges have the most experience in the courtroom but the least amount of power.”

DA Howard fired back in a statement: “If the public is interested in finding out why defendants continue to receive inappropriate sentences and unnecessarily low bonds, in some cases, all one has to do is read the comments of the so-called ‘retired judge.’”

He added, “Since you retired the cat is now out of the bag. Now there is the internet, social media, and a robust media which has allowed others to see you make bad decisions even when the DA recommends otherwise.”

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

In 2012, Howard was upset when Fulton Judge Alford Dempsey gave Terry Kelley a 10-year sentence to serve five years in a plea deal for voluntary manslaughter. The case revolved around a 2011 robbery where Kelley and four others tried to rob a man, who killed one of the robbers. The surviving robbers were charged with murder and DA Howard wanted Kelley to get a 20-year sentence.

Judge Dempsey was likely moved by Raymond Robinson, a veteran probation officer and reverend who saw something in the young Kelley, who then had no other felonies on his record. Robinson said he performed Kelley’s wedding and that he sang in the church choir.

“I don’t think I’ve ever done this before,” Robinson told the judge in a 2012 sentencing hearing. “I believe he’s on the road to change his life.”

I called Robinson, who now pastors full-time and mentors young offenders at the jail. He hadn’t heard of Kelley’s back-sliding.

“I had him on house arrest for nearly two years and he was doing well,” said Robinson, who speculated that Kelley probably lost his lifelines after going away to prison.

It’s uncertain when Kelley was released, probably 2016. In 2017, he was caught pounding his way into a Walgreens.

“If a transformation doesn’t take place, then you lose focus,” said Robinson. “It’s about self-help. You’ve got to want to change.”

What now?

“They’re going to make an example of him because you have to make the right choice,” the pastor said. “It comes to a point you have to show tough love.”

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