A North Georgia homeless man may go to prison for 18 months because he cannot come up with $250 to take a court-ordered polygraph test.
Such a move would seem to violate a U.S. Supreme Court ruling declaring it unconstitutional to jail someone for failing to pay a fee or fine. But the man’s attorney, McCracken Poston, said the state Department Community of Supervision is nonetheless pushing for the punishment.
“It’s crazy,” Poston told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, saying his client, Robert Murphy, has been unable to find a job since he was convicted of a sex offense and had recently been living under a bridge that spans the South Chickamauga Creek.
“Debtors’ prisons are alive and well”
Advocates said that despite the high court ruling - which stemmed from a case out of Catoosa County more than three decades ago - poor people are still being jailed for failing to pay court-ordered fees.
“Debtors’ prisons are alive and well in Georgia,” Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, said, adding that her group has represented many people like Murphy.
INTERACTIVE: See how many sex offenders live in your neighborhood
“You can’t put somebody in jail for their inability to pay. Period,” said Augusta attorney Jack Long, who has brought several lawsuits against private probation companies that pushed for arrests when probationers could not pay court-ordered fines or fees. “You cannot legally impose a condition on a poor person that has the effect of locking them up because they are poor.”
Murphy’s latest trouble began after a probation officer making a routine check of his second-hand laptop, found a photo of a boy standing with his grandmother. As a convicted sex offender, any photograph of a child — even an innocent picture — could violate the terms of his probation.
Murphy said the photograph was left on the computer by the man who sold it to him and denied using it to search for pornography. He was ordered to take a polygraph to determine if he was telling the truth about the picture and his internet use. (The probation revocation warrant that was issued when he didn’t take the polygraph also lists one other reason; he is not working.)
Poston said Murphy can’t afford it.
His failure to take it has prompted the state Department of Community Supervision to ask a court to revoke some of the remaining 7 1/2 years of his probation sentence.
Murphy is scheduled to be in court at the end of November, almost three months after he was picked up and taken to the Catoosa County Jail, where he waits. A spokesman for DCS said he could not speak about Murphy’s case specifically but, in general, the agency provides probationers with a the names of local polygraphers who will test probationers at no cost. In Ringgold, there are three, the spokesman said.
But Murphy said none agreed to do it free of charge.
“They just gave me names, and I called up the names and got the prices. Nobody I know does (it) pro bono,” Murphy said. “He (the probation officer) knows I’m living under a bridge. He said, ‘you’re going to have to come up with the money.’”
A Sad Story; A Despicable Crime
Murphy is accused of committing a crime that many consider among the most despicable — soliciting sex from a child. But his story is also a sad one.
He was a computer consultant in Florida until he moved to Cleveland, Tenn., to care for his ailing mother.
After she died, he fell into a deep depression and lost his job managing the social media network for a Tennessee business as they made cuts to save costs.
Lonely, Murphy said, he responded to an ad for a sexual liaison posted on Craigslist. Murphy insists he thought he was communicating via email with two adult women, “Hanna” and “Mandy.”
But according to the indictment, he also emailed another player in the discussions of sexual activity, “daddy K,” about things he wanted to do with Hanna, and he clearly thought he was planning an illicit encounter with a 14-year-old.
In reality, all three – daddy K, Hanna and Mandy — were the same person, FBI agent Ken Hillman, who ran a joint Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. Murphy had been caught up in an extensive law enforcement sting operation.
The task force was eventually shut down after Hillman was accused of wrongdoing. But Murphy was ultimately indicted on six felonies in October 2012. Some 2 1/2 years after he was arrested and jailed Murphy pleaded guilty to two charges that he used the internet to “solicit and entice” Hanna and Mandy. He was sentenced to two years in prison and 10 years probation. Murphy was immediately released from jail since he had already been locked up for longer than his prison sentence.
He has been homeless since.
Murphy was not required to register as a sex offender but, until recently, he lived with many people who were — on a cot under the Georgia Highway 41 bridge. Many sex offenders gather there because they are limited in where they may live; nowhere near schools, churches or anywhere children gather or in homes where there were children.
On a recent visit, an AJC reporter observed two tents and several sleeping bags tucked up under the bridge. The men living there have stored cans of food, pots and pans and books on the iron supports
“I’m living under a bridge because I’m indigent,” Murphy said during a series of telephone calls with The AJC from a jail in Catoosa County.
Added Poston: “A job with his record, it’s impossible.”
The person who sold him the laptop explained to the community supervision officer the pictures were overlooked when erasing data before the computer was sold to Murphy for $150, said a relative of that person.
Murphy said the probation officer also found a “random Facebook page on my phone, which I never use.”
Murphy isn’t allowed to access the internet without permission. He has been approved for playing the video game Warcraft, when he can access public wifi connections, but Facebook page on his phone suggested he had done more than he had received permission to do.
After the probation officer raised questions, he sold both the laptop and the cell phone. “No computer, no temptation” to get on the internet, Murphy said.