Originally created 01/16/97

Bill would keep suspects behind bars



Frank Howard thought he would get justice when the killer of his 17-year-old daughter Phalonda was arrested in 1992.

Instead, the former Augusta police officer said he found a system that didn't work. Now he's working with legislators to change that system.

Mr. Howard and other members of Blacks Against Black Crime - a local anti-violence organization - are working with state Rep. Henry Howard to introduce a bill that would keep people charged with murder behind bars until they can be tried.

Mr. Howard's ordeal began in July 1992, when his daughter was shot to death.

First, the accused killer, Catara Hill, was freed from jail after posting $15,000 bail.

"It was like they were saying my daughter's life was only worth $15,000," Mr. Howard said.

Then he had to wait for months while the trial was repeatedly postponed because the trials of defendants who were still incarcerated took precedence over Ms. Hill's trial. Meanwhile, Ms. Hill was free to walk the streets.

"It made me very angry," Mr. Howard said.

Ms. Hill was eventually convicted - and reconvicted - for the murder, but the four-year ordeal tested Mr. Howard's Christian faith.

Mr. Howard eventually forgave Ms. Hill for his daughter's death. Now he wants to use the tragedy to help other victims of violent crime.

The bill would reassure the community that dangerous offenders would be taken off the streets and could reduce the number of revenge killings, said Barbara Thurmond, head of Blacks Against Black Crime.

"Part of me died with her that day. That's why I'm working so hard now," Mr. Howard said.

The long-running case prompted him to help others who had also lost faith in the criminal justice system.

"I found a lot of people who had given up," he said. "They felt like they didn't have any say-so in it. I felt it was my responsibility to restore hope in other people."

Mr. Howard took part in anti-violence drives and led a petition on the bail issue two years ago.

He says the bill has a 50-50 chance to pass. "If they let the citizens speak, it would pass easily," he said.

But some local trial lawyers say the bill is a bad idea because it presumes a defendant is guilty.

"What this seems to suggest is that we really think you're guilty and we're going to treat you that way until you can presume otherwise," said attorney David Watkins.

The bill also doesn't take into account the defendant's record or the circumstances of the crime, said attorney Jack E. Boone Jr.

Mr. Boone also says the bill is unconstitutional. The Constitution's Eighth Amendment prohibits excessive bail or fines.

Henry Howard, D-Augusta, said he hopes to introduce the bill today or Friday.