• Chief magistrate judge responds to criticism in Buckhead crime spree case

    By: Nicole Carr

    Updated:

    ATLANTA - In a statement responding to a Channel 2 request, Fulton County’s chief magistrate judge stands by her court’s decision and says she welcomes accountability following criticism of a Buckhead crime suspect’s bond release.

    Channel 2 investigative reporter Nicole Carr reached out to Judge Cassandra Kirk last Monday, in reporting on increased criticism from Atlanta police and Buckhead community members.

    In particular, APD Zone 2 commander Major Barry Shaw highlighted the signature bond release of a co-defendant named Michael Hill, who’s been accused of running over a homeowner in one of the theft cases.

    Police said they had no idea about Michael Hill’s release until they showed up to submit more warrants in the case.

    [WATCH: Atlanta police, city council express frustration over release of repeat offenders] 

    At the time, court records had not been entered into the system, and Kirk told Carr she wanted to respond appropriately.
     
    Late Friday, she did in a two-page statement that chastised the way police “inflamed” the issue rather than taking a productive approach, and explained how Hill’s lack of a criminal record and the evidence submitted to the courts all played a way in the Level 3 pretrial bond decision was made, per Georgia law.


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    Kirk also called this outcry an opportunity to take a closer look at the First Appearance model.

    Full statement:

    Over the last week, hundreds of citizens expressed concerns with the Fulton County justice system, particularly one case where a bond was granted to a 17-year-old accused of several offenses.

    These concerns have caused me to look closely at First Appearance in Fulton County. Without this request, I, like the citizens of Fulton County, believed that our long-standing system was operating with the highest level of efficiency possible. This is an opportunity to review the business model of First Appearance and standardize a best practice in this area. 

    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.

    My brief investigation revealed that the judge in the Hill case made the best decision with the information available to her at the time. While the accused had several warrants and multiple co-defendants, his cases were not calendared nor presented together.  Also, Fulton County Pretrial Services reported that Mr. Hill had no criminal record, had no open pending cases, and was not on probation or parole.  Fulton County Pretrial Services’ report indicated that Mr. Hill was not recommended for release through Pretrial because his community ties could not be verified, but that recommendation was amended when Mr. Hill’s grandmother appeared at the First Appearance hearing.  Fulton County Pretrial Services then offered that release through Pretrial Services would be appropriate with an adult guardian co-signor and supervised pretrial release.

    Thereafter, on each set of charges, Mr. Hill was granted a $30,000 bond and allowed to be released to Fulton County Pretrial Services in lieu of cash, surety, or property bond on conditions that Mr. Hill’s grandmother co-sign for the bond and that Mr. Hill be subject to “Level 3” supervision through Pretrial Services, be subject to a curfew, and have no contact with his co-defendant. When a judge releases a person to the custody of Pretrial Services, that person must report to the Supervision Unit and comply with any conditions of release set by the judge or Pretrial Services. Pretrial Services is responsible for monitoring the person’s compliance with the release conditions. Additionally, in cosigning for the bond, Mr. Hill’s grandmother accepted responsibility for Mr. Hill’s compliance with bond conditions and his return to court.  If Mr. Hill violates any of the conditions of his release through Pretrial Services, Pretrial Services can obtain a bench warrant and Mr. Hill will be returned to jail.

    First Appearance hearings occur in the beginning of the criminal prosecution process (usually within 48 hours of arrest), not the disposition stage. At the First Appearance hearing, the Magistrate Judge informs the accused of his or her charges and rights and considers and announces a bail decision if the offense is not one bailable only by a superior court judge. The purpose of bond is to ensure the accused—who is presumed innocent at this stage of the proceedings—returns to court to complete the criminal process.  

    In setting a bond, the court reviews the information before it, including the warrant(s), the recommendation from Fulton County Pretrial Services, and the argument by counsel for the State and the Defense. Witnesses may also appear at this stage to provide relevant sworn testimony.

    As with most other decision-making processes, the decisions around setting bail benefit from more robust information, including timely information that adequately reflects the full breadth and depth of the current charges brought against an accused and provide adequate assessment of an accused’s risk to the community. Our citizens deserve more and our county must determine whether this is a priority.   

    The Fulton County First Appearance system has been artificially separated into superior and magistrate courts when the proper designation is simply felony or misdemeanor. By statute, all first appearance hearings are the Magistrate Court’s jurisdiction and responsibility. Georgia law grants Magistrate Judges the authority to grant bail in any case not exclusively the purview of another court and those instances are designated clearly. In the pretrial stage, bail may be set by a schedule when the warrant is issued, at first appearance, or at a preliminary hearing.  A defendant charged with a misdemeanor has a right to initial bail, and that presumption may be overcome.  Further, the court is authorized to release an accused on his own recognizance and impose compliance with reasonable, specific and just conditions. 

    When deciding whether an accused is granted bond, a judge is bound to look at the following statutory factors: Whether the accused poses:  

    A. Significant risk of fleeing the jurisdiction or failure to appear in court; B. Significant danger or threat or danger to person, community, or property; C. Significant risk of committing a felony pending trial;  D. Significant risk of intimidating witnesses, or otherwise obstructing justice

    Other factors considered are: 1. The length and character of the defendant’s residence in and roots to the community 2. Employment history and financial condition 3. Family ties and relationships 4. Reputation, character, and mental condition 5. Past history of response to legal process 6. Prior criminal history 7. Identity of responsible members of the community who would vouch for the accused’s reliability 8. The nature of the current charge, the probability of conviction and the likely sentence, insofar as these factors are relevant to the risk of failing to appear. 

    This perceived crisis creates an opportunity for all areas of our system to unify and improve.  The Magistrate Judges currently serving Fulton County were selected for their integrity, credibility and willingness to innovate and improve a stagnant system.  I value each of them and their independent ability to assess facts, law and make decisions.  We will never have one mind on all decisions, but I assure the public we will follow the law, taking its consideration appropriate evidence and arguments before making rulings. In fact, following our tradition of continual training and open discussion, today’s monthly Judges’ meeting will include training on first appearance among other things. We look forward to working with other stakeholders to improve the outcome for all involved.

    Meanwhile, Buckhead resident and Fulton County Commission Chair Robb Pitts is getting involved, telling Carr he plans to  bring Atlanta police and chief  judges from magistrate and superior courts together this week.

    It's nothing new,” Pitts said. “It's sort of cyclical in that it happens periodically where you have these rash of crimes in any part of the city and you have citizens rightfully get up in arms.”
    While Fulton County has no police jurisdiction or say-so over the courts, they do fund the courts, Pitts explained.

    “You have the Police Department pointing their fingers at judges and the judges pointing their fingers at police officers,” Pitts said. “In my role as chair we’ll be bringing them together to find out what can we do specifically to begin to address the problem.

    Buckhead residents have encouraged one another to contact Kirk and Pitts in a unified effort to better understand the judicial process playing out. Pitts has also echoed recent statements made by Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields -- he has warned neighbors against making themselves more vulnerable in the crimes by maintaining locked doors and keeping valuables from being exposed.

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