As homicides continue to proliferate on the streets of Columbus, the violence is not only impacting residential neighborhoods.
The Muscogee County Jail is now packed with an unprecedented number of murder defendants —56 to be exact. Another four in the local sheriff’s custody are being held at the Harris County Jail for security reasons.
The murder defendants account for 6 percent of the inmates at the Muscogee County Jail, which has been full beyond capacity this summer. Some have been at the facility for more than two and three years. Three are female.
Muscogee County Sheriff Donna Tompkins said the number of murder defendants at the jail awaiting trial is unlike anything she has seen in her 30 years with the department. She said it puts an undue burden on the facility at a time when the department is having difficulty attracting correctional officers to handle the volume.
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“It’s good that they’re off the street and the community is safer, but the truth is that they’re now in the jail community,” she said of the growing number of murder defendants. “And so, the same sorts of things that they try to do on the outside, they will try to do on the inside. The same crimes of assault, theft or different things, they bring that into the jail setting with them. And it’s making the jail population more dangerous and more violent.”
Tompkins said many of the cases involve multiple defendants for just one incident, a growing trend that’s beginning to weigh on the local criminal justice system, exacerbating security concerns. In one case, she was told to expect as much as 11 murder suspects.
“It’s just that nobody kills anybody by themselves anymore,” she said. “It’s two, three, four people involved in one murder. ... So that’s why there are so many.”
This summer has been particularly violent in Columbus, with a total of 16 killings in July and August. In all, there have been 23 homicides in the city since January, according to the Columbus Police Department. Muscogee Coroner Buddy Bryan puts the number at 29, exceeding the 26 homicides his office recorded in 2016. Bryan does not differentiate between a homicide that police consider a murder and one they categorize as manslaughter or a justifiable shooting.
This week, nine federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, led by the Columbus Police Department, made 14 arrests of individuals “terrorizing their neighborhoods.”
In addition to the number of murder defendants, the jail also is housing 400 gang members, who make up 37 percent of the jail population, according to the sheriff.
Evaluating and classifying inmates
The jail, which can accommodate a maximum of 1,065 people, has housed as many as 1,080 inmates this summer, said Tompkins. On Friday, the census was at 1,045.
“I got an update just this morning from things happening within the jail with gang members,” she said Friday. “We’re looking to see what they’re doing, or trying to do, or planning to do, that sort of thing.
“We’ve always had to be cautious dealing with the jail population,” she added. “But certainly when you’re getting these kinds of charges, and these are the people you’re dealing with day-after-day, all day, we just have to be more alert and vigilant in our interactions with those people, especially with this great number of them.”
Tompkins said her No. 1 priority is keeping people safe, and everyone who enters the jail goes through a classification process. They are asked: Are you a gang member? Are you affiliated with a gang member? What are your marks, scars, tattoos?
“And then, of course, we look at what you’re charged with this time, what you were charged with last time,” she explained. “So it’s kind of a scale. How serious is this offense? How serious are the past charges? How do we classify you as to where to put you?”
The higher a person is placed in the North Tower, the more dangerous they’re considered, she said. Jail officials try to separate individuals who may have had confrontations in the outside world due to gang activity and other issues.
“It’s entirely possible that you could have nothing on your record but one murder, and we’ve never had contact with you before, so that would still put you in a different location than someone who had 46 armed robberies on their record and a murder,” she said. “So we take all those factors into consideration when deciding where to house you.”
Of the 56 murder defendants at the facility, those there the longest are Anthony Deshon Walker (1,214 days); Sacorey McKelvey (1,187 days) and Brandon Conner (1,105 days).
Walker was charged in the 2014 killing of Marvine Bailey, who was gunned down in a drive-by shooting on Forsyth Street. McKelvey was charged in the 2014 murder of Corey Owens, who was leaving an apartment complex at the corner of Wynnton Road and Adair Avenue. Connor was charged with killing his girlfriend, Rosella “Mandy” Mitchell, and their 6-month-old son, Dylan Ethan Conner, also in 2014.
‘The judge’s call’
District Attorney Julia Slater said some of the defendants remain in jail because judges have granted continuances.
“The DA’s Office tries to be ready to try cases when they are on the judges’ dockets,” she said. “... Sometimes the state asks for a continuance if we need something on a case, and sometimes the defense asks for a continuance because they need more time to take care of something. I’m not saying that any of our judges are making bad decisions on their decisions to continue cases. I’m just simply saying that it’s the judge’s call whether to grant a continuance to the state or to the defense on any specific trail date.”
Slater said Walker, who has been at the jail since May of 2014, was indicted in March of 2016. The case has had many continuances and the trial has been set for Sept. 26.
McKelvey, who entered the jail in June of 2014, went to trial in July. He was sentenced to life without parole this week, and he remains at the county jail waiting for the state to take him to prison, she said.
She said Connor’s is a death penalty case, which takes longer in the system. He has been in jail since August of 2014. The DA and defense recently finished all the pre-trial motions.
“At this point, the judge has made rulings on our motions, and the defense has requested that they be permitted to appeal some of the judge’s decisions and we’re waiting for the judge to decide whether or not they can appeal his decisions,” she said.
When asked why so many murder defendants are at the jail, Slater said: “We are having an increased number of murders occurring on the streets. If there are more murders on the streets, there will be more murder defendants in jail. The other link in that chain is, thank goodness the police department is working hard to solve the murders so that the accused murderers are in jail.”
She said the DA’s office has limited resources. Currently she has 29 assistant DA’s, spread across six counties and various courts. Not all are trial attorneys and they handle a wide range of duties.
“Certainly, the more staff I have, the lower each assistant district attorney’s caseload could be and the faster cases could move,” she said. “... And the other thing is that, every year, more and more, these cases require scientific reports. ... Most of the tests take around a year.”
Slater said murder defendants spend more time in jail than most other defendants for two main reasons.
“One, because of their potential to flee and their danger to the community, they are less likely to have a bond set than defendants in non-violent cases,” she said. “Two, murder cases are often the most complicated cases we prosecute. They almost always involve scientific testing, which can take a year or more to complete, and complicated fact patterns. Our responsibility to the community and the families of victims demands that we thoroughly prepare and zealously prosecute these cases.”
‘Murder has no statute of limitations’
Chief Assistant Public Defender Steve Craft said murder defendants remaining in the county jail for two and three years is becoming the norm, unfortunately.
“Georgia does not have a set time-limit on when to bring someone to trial, other than the statute of limitations itself,” he said. “Murder has no statute of limitations, and the U.S. Supreme Court has not set a fixed time on what speedy trial is in the way of a constitutional right.
“The Georgia Supreme Court says if you’ve been in jail for a year, there’s a rebuttable presumption that you may have been denied your right to a speedy trial,” he said. “If you raise that challenge, the state can offer an explanation to the judge as to why it has taken so long, and it’s generally deemed acceptable.”
He said defendants can file a statutory demand for trial once they have been indicted. If granted in a murder case, the person could be tried in three months.
Craft said there’s been an increase in murder cases in the system without a corresponding increase in prosecutors, defense attorneys, and other people handling the cases, or more time in front of the judges.
The DA’s and Public Defender’s offices have been working with judges on a Rapid Resolution program to move low-level cases more quickly through the system, which they believe is having an impact on the jail overcrowding problem, and allowing officials to focus on more serious cases.
In a recent email to the Ledger-Enquirer, Chief Superior Court Judge Gil McBride, addressed the issue.
“There are ample court dates in Muscogee County Superior Court for trials, guilty pleas and other dispositions of criminal matters,” he wrote. “As a matter of fact, the number of trial weeks dedicated strictly to Muscogee County criminal matters has almost doubled in the last four years, plus the Rapid Resolution Program affords early opportunity to resolve some of the less complex cases. This program continues to work well, meeting twice a month and presided over by Senior Judges Allen, Followill and Bill Smith.”
He said judges are also usually available for bonds, even on weekends. When defense lawyers choose to file speedy trial demands, they move them to the front of the docket for trial.
“... I do know there continues to be large numbers of unindicted cases, but the indictment process is largely committed to prosecutorial discretion,” he wrote. “So others would be better positioned than a judge to comment on this problem. Without an indictment or accusation, there is generally no case for a judge to even consider unless the defendant waives this process. The grand jury sits in Muscogee County almost every Tuesday, ready to take up indictments. ... The judges will also continue to be in Columbus every week, ready to try cases.”
‘We need more people’
Tompkins said it will take a community-wide approach, involving citizens and criminal justice officials, to reduce the number of murder defendants in the jail. She would like to see churches and organizations get more involved in helping to curb violence in the community.
“The first thing that should happen is, hopefully, the community will take notice and react as far as keeping people out of the jail for murder,” she said. “But the second part, of course, is moving the cases through the court system. We have several that have been here for quite a period of time. I’m not pointing fingers at anyone, but it’s unprecedented to have 60 people in jail charged with murder. So as much as possible, let’s try to move forward with those cases and move them through the system one way or another.”
In the meantime, she said, she’s down 30 officers and just trying to keep everyone safe.
“We’re recruiting every day, trying to fill these positions,” she said. “We need more people to do this job. But it is a physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually draining job to do all day, every day, 12 hours a day. And it takes a special person to be able to handle the stress of that.”