Soloman Williams was afraid.
Back in August, he and his wife and kids had just moved into a home in Union City, and Williams decided to upgrade the locks to make sure they’d be safe. He was in the middle of this task when an armed man tried to barge in and shot him dead.
Now, Louisa Williams is afraid because a Fulton County judge allowed her husband’s alleged killer out of jail on bond.
The move also touched off a feud between the local judiciary and District Attorney Paul Howard, who called the decision to release Dexter Hubbard more risky “bond madness.” The chief magistrate, Cassandra Kirk, went on Channel 2 Action News to defend the decision. Hubbard, she said, hadn’t been indicted and lacked a felony criminal history.
Whatever the rationale, Lousia Williams is left with the same feeling: “The Fulton County system failed me and my husband.”
While this case is drawing attention, a months-long investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found it is far more common than many might think in Fulton and DeKalb counties.
In Fulton County, at least 37 suspects were granted bond on murder charges and released from the start of 2014 to this May, according to information the DA’s office provided in response to a request from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Fulton County Sheriff’s Office has declined requests to provide a list of suspects who have been granted bond but haven’t posted it.
In DeKalb, at least 85 people charged with murder have been granted bond in the same time period, with 68 of them released from jail, an AJC analysis found.
Georgia’s other most populous counties, Gwinnett and Cobb, which are traditionally more conservative, almost never release such defendants, officials said.
“It’s really discouraging,” Atlanta police chief Erika Shields said of what’s happening in the city. “I believe there’s 130 murderers awaiting trial and 30 percent of them are out on bond.”
The argument for, against bond
Judges, prosecutors, attorneys and social justice advocates agree that a murder charge shouldn’t automatically disqualify a suspect from bond. The court must consider many factors to ensure the defendant’s rights aren’t infringed:
Do they have a prior record? Are they likely to flee or try to influence witnesses? Are they dangerous?
Another important factor: Do police seem to have a strong case?
“Folks never know the facts of the case. They know what they’ve seen on TV,” DeKalb Chief Superior Court Judge Courtney L. Johnson said. “I think all the judges on the bench take their duties very seriously. They take the idea of granting a bond very seriously.”
Even if a judge doesn’t want to give bond, the law requires Georgia courts to grant it if the suspect hasn’t been indicted within 90 days of the arrest.
The bond release process itself is meant as a safeguard, requiring money or property to assure defendants return to court.
That amount is based on the defendant’s reported ability to pay, which in some cases makes the amount seem high ($750,000 for prominent attorney Tex McIver) or low ($75,000 for local alleged Bloods gang boss Malcom Brown).
No matter how high, some prosecutors will almost never give their blessing.
The temptation of a suspect to influence witnesses is a factor because of the high stakes of conviction, said Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter, former chair of the state prosecutors organization.
He also has fear: “We think these people, by the very nature of the charge, present a level of danger that is really not acceptable.”
How it can go -- wildly -- wrong
No one can predict the actions of another.
DeKalb Judge Asha Jackson didn’t know when she gave Taiquan Mitchell bond that he’d cut his ankle monitor and run from the courthouse just before the jury found him guilty of murder last year. She didn’t know he would make it as far as South Carolina, claiming he was headed to see his ailing grandmother one last time.
Judge Linda Workman didn’t know back in 2009 ex-DeKalb Sheriff’s deputy Derrick Yancey would enjoy six months of freedom in Belize – and hope that he’d never pay for murdering his wife and a day laborer – before getting caught.
Fulton Magistrate Karen Smith Woodson didn’t know Dontavis Montgomery would be accused in a second killing, this time in the shooting death of his 15-year-old cousin.
DeKalb Judge Clarence Seeliger didn’t know Martavis Mathis, facing murder charges in two deaths, would then be charged with murder in another shooting, a brazen one that put two schools on lockdown.
“No judge wants to be wrong on one of these. It creates outrage and scandals,” said Russell Covey, Georgia State University law professor. “Even the most careful judge can’t predict the future 100 percent of the time.”
These cases of bond gone wrong aren’t the norm, of course.
In Fulton, for example, only 11 of the 37 released murder suspects since 2014 had been arrested again by this May, according to the DA’s office data. Most of the offenses weren’t violent.
SIGN UP FOR OUR NEWSLETTER: Know what’s really going on with crime and public safety in your metro Atlanta community. Get the latest breaking crime news, trial coverage, trends and unsolved cases. Sign up for our AJC newsletter delivered weekly to your inbox.
Families left scared, confounded
Hubbard, 19, posted $155,000 bond and walked out of jail on Sept. 27, to the horror of Soloman Williams’ widow.
Hubbard, whose attorneys couldn’t be reached for comment Friday, had been locked up since Aug. 11, four days after Louisa Williams watched her husband take his last breath.
“This boy killed my husband, took my family, destroyed my world, and he’s out there,” she said.
The Fulton DA said he wanted his full 90 days to indict before bond would be considered. The chief magistrate said Howard had been notified the court would weigh bond if Hubbard wasn’t indicted by the end of September.
Howard called the bond order illegal, Channel 2 said, though it wasn’t clear exactly what he meant.
Judges in Georgia can grant bond before or after an indictment if they feel it is warranted.
Then, whether history will judge the decision right or wrong, the victims’ families are left to just accept it.
Like Ericka Driessen-Cannick, who moved away from Lawrenceville after months of scanning her apartment parking lot with fear following the release of DeKalb’s Malcom Brown, the purported gang boss accused of ordering her daughter’s death.
Like Antonio Fuller, who was upset, but not surprised, when his brother’s killer, Martavis Mathis, was accused of another killing while out on bond.
Like Louisa Williams.
-Staff writer Christian Boone contributed to this story.