By John Cole Vodicka
Tonight, I write with a very heavy heart.
Nancy G. – Nancy Little Gallagher – is dead. She died a horrible death sometime this past week, most likely between Tuesday and Thursday. On Thursday afternoon, her body was discovered at the Walton County (Monroe), Ga., transfer station. That is, the landfill. That is, the garbage dump. She’d been transported to the dump, apparently compacted in a garbage truck. Her body was discovered mid-afternoon on Thursday. Nancy Little Gallagher – homeless, mentally ill, jailed last month for two weeks on misdemeanor charges because she couldn’t afford a $33 cash bond – has been disposed of. Literally. Disposed. Of. She was 54 years old.
I’ve written about Ms. Gallagher in two recent issues of Bearing Witness. This photo shows Ms. Gallagher smiling at the camera while standing outside the Family Dollar on Hawthorne Avenue on Saturday afternoon, July 10. It was the last time I spoke with her. It’d been two weeks since I bonded her out of jail. She told me she was okay, sleeping in Bishop Park, spending that Saturday walking up and back along Hawthorne. It was 90 degrees. I reminded her she had a court date on July 23, and that it was important that she be present at her arraignment. I gave her a few dollars, and we hugged. I watched her walk into the store to spend her newly acquired cash. It was the last time I talked with Nancy Little Gallagher.
After the July 10 encounter, I spent some time searching for Nancy Gallagher in the days leading up to her scheduled July 23 court appearance. I couldn’t find her. Last week, I talked with her public defender, Ryan Ignatius, and Chief Assistant Solicitor Will Fleenor, to forewarn them that the odds weren’t good if we expected Ms. Gallagher to show up for her arraignment. The solicitor sympathized and indicated he would not seek a bench warrant for her arrest if she was a no-show. Her lawyer encouraged me to “just have Ms. Gallagher call me” when I next saw her on the street.
On this past Friday morning, July 23, Nancy Gallagher’s name appeared on the State Court’s docket, and I was present in the courtroom to offer what support I could if she should miraculously appear for her arraignment. Her case was called, and Solicitor Fleenor told Judge Ethelyn Simpson that he did not want Ms. Gallagher arrested, and that he’d asked the police to keep an eye out for her to make sure she was safe. Judge Simpson did not issue a bench warrant and graciously rescheduled her arraignment for August 6.
A short while later, while sitting in the courtroom gallery observing other State Court cases, Will Fleenor motioned for me to come to the prosecutor’s table. There, he quietly indicated he wanted to speak with me and Judge Simpson. We approached the bench. “I don’t know any other way to say this,” Mr. Fleenor began. “But Nancy Gallagher is dead. I just talked with someone in Walton County, and they found her body at a transfer station in Monroe.”
Judge Simpson gasped. I think I groaned, “Oh no!” Judge Simpson looked as though she would cry. All three of us stood stunned. The judge thanked me for my advocacy on Ms. Gallagher’s behalf. Mr. Fleenor told me how sorry he was to have to be the bearer of such awful news.
Numb and distraught, I returned to my seat in the courtroom gallery and attempted to take notes as other defendants’ hearings continued. Thankfully, courtwatcher Jean Dixen was observing on Friday, and she provided me with a gentle listening ear and some impromptu grief counseling.
A few minutes later, Solicitor Fleenor asked me to step out to the fifth-floor lobby. “This gets worse,” he warned me. “Nancy Gallagher’s body had been in a garbage truck, compacted, he said. “The GBI is now investigating. They found an ATM receipt on her person which helped to identify her. The receipt was dated July 16.” Mr. Fleenor told me that every garbage truck that enters the landfill has to report its route so it might be possible to find out when and where Nancy Gallagher’s body was tossed into the trash truck. Mr. Fleenor again told me how sorry he was to have to share with me such tragic news.
As you can imagine, I’ve had a difficult couple of days. Since learning of Nancy Gallagher’s unexpected death, I’ve initiated telephone calls to the Monroe Police Department and the area field office of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, to let them know of my connection to Ms. Gallagher over the last month. I hope that the GBI investigation will be a thorough one. My fear is that because Ms. Gallagher had no standing in our community, and perhaps has no family to advocate on her behalf, her death will be of little or no importance to officialdom. I also reached out to the Walton County Coroner’s office to make sure that should Nancy Gallagher’s body go unclaimed after the GBI investigation is closed, she can be given a proper, dignified burial. She should not be neglected and spurned as she was during so much of her life.
I also cannot shake from my mind the possibility of my having seen Nancy Gallagher one last time on this past Tuesday. My wife Dee and I were driving on Prince Avenue that afternoon, heading home from the UGA campus. It was after 5 p.m. We were in fairly heavy traffic and moving along Prince at a good pace when, approaching the Chase Street intersection, I spotted someone who I believed to be Ms. Gallagher. This woman was sitting at the bus stop, dressed in the same color clothes I’d seen Ms. Gallagher wearing on July 10, and was holding in her lap several plastic bags.
“That’s Nancy,” I said to my wife. “She has a court date Friday … I need to talk with her.” I braked the car but couldn’t pull over and stop safely. We drove on. I wish now I had found a way to park the car and speak to her. I didn’t. If it was indeed Nancy Gallagher sitting at that bus stop, she did not have long to live.
Nancy Little Gallagher has been dead now for five, maybe six days. Over the weekend and again today, I found myself looking for her when driving along Prince and Hawthorne Avenues or when stopped at the intersection of Sycamore Drive and the Atlanta Highway. I try to spot her when I pass the Sparrow’s Nest on Prince, the Salvation Army and Family Dollar on Hawthorne, Bigger Vision and the Homeless Day Shelter on North Avenue. I hope against hope that suddenly I’ll see the hunched-over figure of a woman wearing a purple T-shirt, baggy teal sweatpants and red-and-white sneakers. When that happens, I tell myself, this time I’ll stop and park my car, jump out, and shout her name. I imagine she’ll give me that goofy smile and ask me for a cigarette. She’ll reach in her tattered plastic shopping bag and offer me a trinket she’s collected on her wanderings. She’ll tell me she’s okay. “I’m safe,” she’ll say, though not so convincingly. I’ll pull a couple of dollars from my wallet to help tide her over. And then Nancy Little Gallagher will say goodbye and wander into the Family Dollar to spend the few bucks I just put in her hand.
“You be safe, Nancy,” I’ll tell her. “Don’t forget your next court date.”
“The truth about injustice always sounds outrageous.”– James Cone
Magistrate Court. 8 defendants. 29 minutes. $30,020.
It was last Thursday morning.
The judge arrived in the courtroom at 8:50 a.m. On weekday mornings, Magistrate Court first appearance bond hearings are scheduled to begin at 8:30. Her Honor was 20 minutes late.
Over the past 16 months, first appearance hearings have been held virtually. The magistrate judge sits in the courtroom with a laptop nearby. S/he is surrounded by the morning’s paperwork, which includes the names of the defendants who’ve been recently arrested and jailed; the charges against them; the police reports and/or warrants; and their respective “criminal histories.”
The defendants appear remotely at these bond hearings from the booth at the Clarke County jail. The booth otherwise serves as an interrogation room. The recently arrested defendants sit alone. They don’t yet have legal representation. They stare into a camera that allows them to see and be seen by the judge. Courtwatchers present in the courtroom are able to see and hear the magistrate judge. We can hear the defendant’s voice but cannot see the prisoner’s image on the laptop facing the judge.
Steve Williams, Kate Glennon and I were present in Magistrate Court this past Thursday when, at 8:53 a.m., Chief Magistrate Judge Patricia Barron telephoned the jail from her laptop to let a sheriff’s deputy know that she was ready to proceed with the morning’s cases. “We have eight people this morning,” she double-checked with the deputy. “Let’s go down the list,” she proceeded. “First one is Cedric R.” It was now 8:55 a.m.
Mr. R. is a 17-year-old African American. He was charged with simple assault, a family violence offense. The police report listed Mr. R.’s father as the victim. Judge Barron called the dad, who told her he would allow his son to return to the home. The conversation with the father lasted less than three minutes, after which Judge Barron set young Mr. R.’s bond at $20 good security (cash). It was 9 a.m. and already time for case No. 2.
Shaquayvion A. replaced Mr. R. in the booth. He too, is African American and 25 years old, charged with misdemeanor obstruction, simple assault and giving a false name to law enforcement. Three minutes later, at 9:03 a.m., Judge Barron told Mr. A. that to get out of jail he would have to post a $3,000 good security bond.
Exit Mr. A., enter Antonio R., another Black man, 28 years old, charged with marijuana possession/intent to distribute and possession of a firearm. Judge Barron set Mr. R.’s bond at $9,000 good security. A glance at the clock showed it was 9:06 a.m.
One minute later, Mr. R.’s co-defendant, Mykia S., a 22-year-old African American, now sat in the jail booth. Facing fewer charges than Antonio R., Judge Barron set Ms. S.’s bond at $3,000 good security. It took all of two minutes. It was 9:09 a.m.
Dylan W. appeared via Judge Barron’s laptop. Mr. W., is African American and 24 years old. He was charged with a misdemeanor, giving a false name to a police officer. Bond was set at $1,000 good security. Mr. W.’s first appearance hearing ended at 9:12 a.m.
It was at this point that Judge Barron told the jail deputy, with no hint of irony, “Give me a minute to catch up with the paperwork.”
Turns out she didn’t need the full minute, and proceeded to address Ryan B.’s felony shoplifting and misdemeanor theft by deception case. She didn’t need an entire minute for this case either and set bond for the 28-year-old white man at $6,000 total. It was 9:14 a.m.
Next came defendant No. 7, Sabrina B., a white female, 26 years old. Ms. B. was charged with identity fraud and theft by deception, two counts each. Judge Barron began Ms. B.’s hearing at 9:16 a.m. It was all over at 9:18 a.m. Bond was set at $6,000.
The last first appearance hearing started just seconds later. Brandon M., 36 years old, was charged with meth possession. The white man was given a $2,000 bond.
“We’re on a roll here,” Judge Barron announced to the deputy sheriff at the jail and to her clerk and the three courtwatchers sitting in the courtroom. “Any questions?” she asked us. It was 9:19 a.m. Feeling shell-shocked, Steve, Kate and I shook our heads “no” and quickly exited the courtroom.
We were dumbfounded – no, outraged – and the three of us circled up in the lobby to debrief. We were incredulous to what had just transpired: Bond had been set for eight human beings in less than an half hour. Steve, Kate and I were disturbed that we’d just witnessed a senior judge spend an average of less than three minutes with indigent, jailed defendants – particularly when it was the prisoners’ very first encounter with the court system following their arrest. And we agreed that Judge Barron’s flippant comment about being “on a roll” was totally inappropriate. It certainly lacked any measure of judicial integrity, especially when it came from the mouth of a person who’d been a magistrate judge since 2001.
At no point during any of the eight first appearance hearings did Judge Baron introduce herself, or let the defendants know the purpose of the proceedings. She didn’t inquire as to the defendant’s connection to Athens, or their ability to post a money bond, or their employment status, or if they had a family and dependents, or their health issues. Instead, each defendant sat in jail looking at a laptop computer screen while they listened to a judge – whose name they did not know – determine their pretrial liberty. Judge Barron never once asked if they at all understood what the hell was going on.
Judge Barron did read out loud the charges each defendant was facing. She alluded to the public defender’s office as a possible legal resource as their cases moved through the system. And after she set the cash bonds, she did (finally) ask the prisoners, “Any questions?” Three of the eight actually tried to ask her something.
“Judge, can I please get an OR (no cash) bond?” one of them pleaded with her.
“You asked me that three times already,” the judge shot back. “What’d I tell you the first time you asked me? ‘NO.’”
Unfortunately – and disturbingly – this isn’t the first time we’ve witnessed Judge Barron rush through first appearance bond hearings. Five weeks ago, courtwatchers Kate Glennon, Mariah Cady and Steve Williams observed while she knocked out eight hearings in less than 25 minutes! “It seemed like she had a train to catch,” Steve Williams said afterwards. All eight of those defendants were given cash bonds, too. One of them, Edward M., was charged with the misdemeanor offenses shoplifting and criminal trespassing. Mr. M. told the judge he was homeless and had no money. No matter. Judge Barron set his bond at $2,000 good security.
Folks, there is certainly more than a whiff of pretrial injustice in the air in ACC Magistrate Court. It not only sounds outrageous. It is outrageous.
Monday night, 380 women and men were confined in the Clarke County jail.
286 of this total were African American.
There were also 10 Latinx people behind bars.
45 women were locked away in our jail.
76-year-old Lawrence B. was the oldest person in custody. Mr. B. has been locked up for two weeks.
Also in custody was one 67-year-old; two 66-year-olds; two 65-year-olds; two 63-year-olds and one 61-year-old.
All told, 58 people 50 years old and older were in confinement.
There were five 18-year-olds and nine 17-year-olds in jail. A 15-year-old, Marquise M., was incarcerated in the Rockdale (near Conyers) kiddie prison, charged as an adult with murder.
Over the last seven days local law enforcement arrested and booked 115 people into the jail, 83 of whom were BIPOC. The oldest person arrested last week was 66. The youngest were two 17-year-olds.
John Cole Vodicka is a member of Oconee Street UMC and is one of the leaders of the Courtwatch program.