A twice-convicted drug dealer was sprung from state prison this month after two local judges agreed to allow his father to pay $70,000 in additional fines.
Those who enabled Paul M. Davis Jr. to gain freedom in exchange for the cash payment say they don't see anything odd about it.
"I can make these decisions without any input from anyone," said Superior Court Judge Albert M. Pickett, who rescinded the 10-year prison sentence he imposed on Mr. Davis in exchange for payment of a $50,000 fine.
Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet said he had two hearings on the issue of releasing Mr. Davis from the 10-year prison sentence he imposed upon payment of a $20,000 fine.
Two judges were involved in Mr. Davis' case because Judge Pickett handled the probation-revocation proceedings and Judge Overstreet accepted Mr. Davis' guilty plea in his newest drug case.
"Nobody objected to it," Judge Overstreet said of Mr. Davis' release upon payment of the fines. The parole board would have released Mr. Davis early anyway, and because of the judges' involvement, Columbia County now has $70,000 and Mr. Davis is still on probation, Judge Overstreet said.
All money collected in fines is shuffled through the probation department, the court clerk's office, then the finance department, which adds it into the county general fund.
Mr. Davis' father, Paul M. Davis Sr., who paid the fine, is the owner of Davis Appliance in Augusta.
According to the orders signed by the judges, Judge Pickett decided on his dollar figure July 22 and Judge Overstreet on July 23. However, no one from the district attorney's office was present for any hearing for Mr. Davis on those dates.
District Attorney Danny Craig said he would never support the idea of paying a large fine to get out of prison, but then, he was never asked. His assistant district attorney, Todd Hughes, first heard of the issue of money Aug. 11, when he was present on the Davis case before Judge Overstreet. As he remembers, one of Mr. Davis' attorneys - John Long or Richard Ingram - brought up the money issue with Judge Overstreet.
Mr. Hughes said at that time that he neither opposed nor supported Mr. Davis' bid to be released from prison and placed on probation. He just went through the facts of the case, he said.
The case began when Mr. Davis was arrested in the basement of his father's Columbia County home, where sheriff's investigators found him with stolen weapons and all-terrain vehicles, and more than 10 ounces of marijuana.
He pleaded guilty in January 1999, and Chief Judge William M. Fleming Jr. sentenced him to serve 15 years' probation after a year in the state's diversion center. But on Nov. 18, 2003, deputies again raided Mr. Davis' father's home. This time they reported finding two guns and a pound of marijuana with scales locked in a safe.
On Dec. 8, Judge Pickett revoked the probation sentence Judge Fleming had imposed and sentenced Mr. Davis to prison. Five months later, Mr. Davis pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana with the intent to distribute in the new case, and Judge Overstreet sentenced him to a concurrent 10-year prison sentence.
Efforts on Mr. Davis' behalf appear to have then shifted to the State Board of Pardons and Paroles. In addition to family members' pleas, state Sen. Joey Brush wrote letters on Mr. Davis' behalf, according to parole board records.
In mid-July, the parole board set a tentative parole date for Mr. Davis for December 2005, spokeswoman Heather Hedrick said.
But a review of records indicates that Judge Pickett and Judge Overstreet already had decided to free Mr. Davis upon payment of the $70,000 in fines.
It is unclear who conceived the idea of changing the sentence from prison time to a fine.
No one from the District Attorney's Office was present when the judges decided on the fines in July, according to Mr. Davis' file in the office and the schedules and appointment calendars reviewed by The Augusta Chronicle under the state's Open Records law.
Judge Pickett said he might have had a hearing in July, but he thought it was a conference with Mr. Davis' probation officer, and that he decided on the $50,000 fine. Both attorneys involved, Mr. Ingram and Mr. Long, denied attending any July hearing and said the fine amount was the judges' idea.
In response to another Open Records request, Mr. Davis' probation officer responded: "Per my recollection, I had no contact with any attorney regarding the drawing of the order to return Davis to probation upon a payment of money."
Judge Overstreet said he thinks the fine was Mr. Long's proposal.
It would be simple to determine whose idea it was if whatever happened in July had taken place in open court, said Thomas J. Charron, a former Cobb Judicial Circuit District attorney who is now the director of the National District Attorneys Association.
"These types of hearings shouldn't be ex-parte," Mr. Charron, said, referring to the legal term for when only one side appears before a judge. It is simply wrong in an adversary system of justice, particularly when the issue concerns a sentence in a criminal case, he said.
"They need to be on the record. Any type of modification should be done in public, in open court and on the records," Mr. Charron said.
Gwinnett Judicial Circuit District Attorney Danny Porter agreed.
"They can't modify the sentence imposed without the state being present," he said.
It happened once in his circuit, Mr. Porter said, but he recalls it was a simple mistake by a newly seated judge who corrected it by holding another hearing.
While Judge Pickett is legally correct in saying he doesn't need anyone's input concerning a probation revocation, Mr. Porter pointed out, "but that hearing's already happened. The state has a right to be there at modification."
There was a hearing before Judge Overstreet, according to court documents, but it was weeks after his decision was made. The district attorney was notified, and Mr. Hughes, the assistant district attorney, attended that Aug. 11 hearing. According to court records, Judge Overstreet said he would consider the matter and issue a decision later.
But he had made the decision July 23, according to the court order he signed Sept. 29.
Mr. Long, Mr. Davis' attorney, said there was a delay in getting Mr. Davis released because Judge Overstreet's order wasn't signed until late September and Mr. Davis' father didn't want to write a check for $20,000 until they had both court orders in hand. He already had written a check for the $50,000, according to court records.
On Oct. 1, Mr. Davis was released from Ware State Prison.
Mr. Long said most taxpayers wouldn't object to getting a large fine as opposed to keeping someone locked up.
"I just don't see this as being an unusual occurrence," Mr. Long said. "When it cost you and me $25,000 to $30,000 to lock people up ... then that doesn't bother me the least bit."
Judge Pickett said this case should not suggest to anyone that money can buy someone out of a prison cell.
"I don't think that analysis should be drawn. I don't think Columbia County is complaining with $50,000 extra in their coffers," he said.
But Mr. Porter, the Gwinnett district attorney, agreed with Mr. Craig in taking the position that his office will not recommend probation instead of prison in exchange for a large fine. Example A, both said, was the firestorm of criticism lodged against Mr. Charron when, as the Cobb County prosecutor, he recommended probation for a drug dealer in exchange for a donation to the drug task force in 1994.
"He took a beating in the press," Mr. Porter said. "It is not a good practice.
Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.