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Court watching in Fulton County, Georgia

The following report by citizen watchdog Patricia “M’Ajike” Williams is the first in a series of “Court Watch” reports. 

On March 29, 2014, when Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard and his staff swore me in as a Citizens’ Court Watcher, I anticipated my initial call for duty would come from my North Fulton Community Prosecutor, Mr. Christopher Floss.

But unexpectedly, my first request came in early September from a Sandy Springs senior citizen who is in need of a double lung transplant, Mr. Ernest Ray Jr.

Mr. Ray explained that he is a former fire fighter who, as a result of an employment injury, is now attempting to secure placement on the waiting list at the Emory Transplant Center.  He further explained that he was scheduled to appear in Fulton County Superior Court on September 8 on felony charges for allegedly having made terroristic threats on August 9.

According to an August 29 letter, issued by the Fulton County Housing Authority, a City of Sandy Springs Police Officer allegedly claimed to have overhead Mr. Ray yelling “I am going to kill everyone in the building.” There was no police report to corroborate this claim of the Housing Authority.

That building is the Allen Road Mid-Rise Apartments, under the management of the Housing Authority. Citizens who reside there are seniors and people living with disabilities, who fail to meet HUD’s Affordable Housing Income Standard, but still qualify to receive a level of housing assistance. I found several things puzzling about Mr. Ray’s story and the charges against him.

If, as reported, he made terroristic threats on August 9, why was he not arrested before August 14 when stopped for a traffic violation?  Why was the traffic citation for speeding not issued at the time of his arrest?

His story also raised an alarming issue. Why, after a law enforcement officer heard a tenant threaten to blow up a residential building, would the government provide such a ‘menace’ with a 53-day window of opportunity to execute his plan? In the August 29 letter, the Government’s Housing Authority notified Mr. Ray that his housing assistance would be terminated, effective September 30.

Mr. Ernest Ray, Jr.

Mr. Ernest Ray, Jr.

Also, the county government’s letter of August 29 gave the appearance of respecting Mr. Ray’s statutory rights. However, tax-funded employees repeatedly failed to timely respond to Mr. Ray’s written acceptance of the government’s offer for an Informal Conference.

Having personally experienced the slight-of-hand business practices conducted by the managerial staff at the Fulton County Housing Authority, I agreed to accompany Mr. Ray to the court hearing.  He was required to provide me with transportation to and from the court house on September 8.

Because Mr. Ray’s case was not heard until early afternoon, my first citizens’ court watching experience lasted for several hours.  Judge John Goger served as the presiding judge; Staff Attorney Suzanne Tevis served as the Public Defender; and Assistant District Attorney Lauren Travis served as the Prosecutor.

In the cases I witnessed, defendants pleaded guilty and Judge Goger sentenced according to recommendations made by the State.  I thought it interesting that, when asked, Judge Goger gave the defendant an opportunity to speak in his own defense, although the accused had already been represented by the Public Defender.

After weighing the evidence and considering the circumstance surrounding Mr. Ray’s case, Judge Goger dead docketed the charges. Mr. Ray is now permitted to engage in the process of expunging his record.

“I’m glad I can now have my record expunged,” said Mr. Ray. ”Never having a criminal record made being accused of two felony counts particular frightening,” he said.

Mr. Ray said that he was thankful that Ms. Williams was willing to go to court with him. He also stated “I know her presence in the court room made a difference.”

In my opinion, due to conflicting government documents, Judge Goger made an appropriate decision. For contrary to the termination of assistance letter issued the County Government’s Housing Authority, not one sentence in the Police Officer’s report indicated that Mr. Ray had threatened to blow up the apartment building.

Regrettably, Judge Goger’s ruling could not relieve the burden placed upon Mr. Ray and his family by our County Government Housing Authority.  The Authority’s disparate impact policies and sleight-of-hand treatment prevents a certain class of citizens from equally enjoying the rights, privileges and immunities as are freely extended to and are enjoyed by other citizens.

Consequently, on September 23, Emory Transplant Center evaluators had no other choice than to notify Mr. Ray that his name could not be place on the transplant list until his unstable living situation had been resolved.

On September 26, Mr. Larry Hagg, Executive Director of the Housing Authorities, briefly met with Mr. Ray, to cancel the scheduled Informal Conference that Mr. Ray requested and to reschedule the meeting for October 7.

Currently, Mr. Ray is waiting to receive an updated notice from the government regarding his “impending” homelessness status. The government refused to accept offered rental payments for the months of September and October.

Part two in this “Court Watch” series coming soon…

Any Fulton County resident desiring to become a Court Watcher should contact the Program Coordinator at Reiko.Ward@fultoncountyga.gov.

If you have knowledge of a similar situation in Fulton County or elsewhere in America, please email info@watchdogwire.com.

Patricia Williams

Patricia "M'Ajike" Williams is a citizen watchdog in Fulton County, Georgia. She is a Certified Peer Specialist (CPS) and a Citizens' Court Watcher.

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Categories: Courts & Law, Government Transparency, Healthcare, Waste, Fraud and Abuse
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