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Let's Throw a Going-Away Party 

A "lackadaisical" judge retires

The streets of Mecklenburg County just got a little safer. Judge Phil Howerton has retired.

Howerton's contempt for crime victims and the taxpayer's money was exceeded only by his desire to process people through his courtroom fast enough to get home early.

Howerton was Exhibit A of everything that is terribly wrong with our court system.

Andrew Ray is his true legacy. Ray, 41, a retired military man and the father of four, worked as a manager at Hardees to help put his kids through college. He was forced to kneel before he was shot in the head during a robbery. Essa Winston Davidson and Melvin Jay Hardy, two teens charged with Ray's 1997 murder, had strangled Kedrin Bradley to death in 1995, but Howerton bonded them both out on a mere $50,000 each. (That meant they only needed $5,000 to get out of jail.)

At the time, Howerton said he freed them because they had no prior records and didn't seem like a flight risk. (What the hell did he think they'd do, take up knitting?) Howerton still insists that Ray's murder wasn't his fault, but then nothing was ever Howerton's fault. For a decade, he blamed the district attorney's office for not telling him that they intended to seek the death penalty in Bradley's case. But the death penalty would have only made Davidson and Hardy more of a flight risk. It had no bearing on the degree of danger they posed to the community,-- another factor judges can take into account but one that Howerton apparently rarely bothered to consider.

In the wake of the Ray fiasco, the governor appointed a taskforce to study the state's bail system, and today most murder suspects here await trial behind bars with no bail. It's one of the few positive legacies of Howerton's time on the bench. Not that he appears to have learned much from it.

I've been pulling Howerton's docket sheets for years now and have been routinely horrified. Howerton regularly and dramatically slashed the bond amounts for some of the most hair-raising criminals to pass through the court system, resetting their bonds so low that they walked right out the door again.

Police officers were horrified when Howerton bonded out Lawrence "Big Red" Brooks.

In 2005, Brooks, 25, hunted down Walter Blair, whom he believed was seeing his girlfriend. Brooks initially tried to execute Blair, but his gun misfired.

Brooks then attempted what can only be described as a castration, shooting Blair four times at close range in the groin and stomach and sending Blair to the hospital with life-threatening injuries.

Five months earlier, Brooks was charged with assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill.

Brooks ran from police for four months after the attack on Blair. They were so desperate to capture him that they put him on the city's Top 10 Most Wanted List, and he was even featured on the America's Most Wanted Web site.

None of this fazed Howerton. A magistrate initially denied Brooks bail on the attempted murder charge, blocking him from getting out of prison, but Howerton later let him out on $25,000 bond. Howerton dramatically decreased the bail amounts on the other charges against Brooks, including lowering the $50,000 bail the magistrate set on a separate assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill charge from another incident to $10,000. (Defendants typically only have to put down 10 percent or less of their bail amounts to bond out.)

Brooks used his newfound freedom to rack up more assault charges and threaten Blair in an effort to keep him from testifying at Brooks' upcoming trial.

That same month, Howerton let out nearly two dozen violent individuals, including Marvin Fitzger Outing, who was charged with kidnapping, breaking and entering, assault on a female and robbery with a dangerous weapon, dropping bond on some of those charges from $50,000 and $25,000 to $5,000. Outing and Brooks' cases were typical of Howerton.

Howerton's lackadaisical attitude toward violent repeat criminals was exceeded only by his generosity with state-funded public defenders. In North Carolina, people who are indigent, or financially destitute, are entitled to free legal services. I've sat in Howerton's courtroom and watched as he'd have sheriff's deputies line up defendants. "Public defender, public defender, public defender," he'd bark at the defendants as deputies paraded them past. It didn't matter if they got out of order, as they often did, or if Howerton didn't know who he was assigning a public defender to. If the line stopped moving, Howerton would roar something nasty at the deputies, who were often just trying to put the men in the correct order.

I conducted an investigation, which was published by Creative Loafing, that found Howerton awarded free public defense to two businessmen from out of town, one of whom harassed a flight attendant while on a company trip and another who drove drunk here. He also granted free defense to people who owned or lived in homes valued at $120,000 to $400,000.

There is a reason why most of the praise for Howerton last week was from defense attorneys. He and other judges who have followed his example have turned the court system into a playground for hardened criminals and those the state pays to represent them.

Good riddance.

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