Pubdate: Sun, 08 Apr 2001
Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution (GA)
Copyright: 2001 Cox Interactive Media.
Author: Steve Visser, Joshua Good contributed to this article.


Sherry Lyons-Williams loved busting drug dealers who fuel burglaries,
robberies and murders and leave behind broken lives and lost souls.

But the fact is the dealer the Atlanta detective died trying to arrest
Wednesday would have been back on the street within weeks, if not days,
to ply his trade again.

"Most of them know the system and most of them balk at jail time," said
Fulton County Assistant District Attorney Robert McBurney, who used to
prosecute dealers. "They say, 'I'll be a laughingstock. Nobody does time
for this.' "

McBurney voices the frustration of prosecutors and police. It's no
secret that Fulton courts are so overloaded with drug cases and other
crimes that drug dealers routinely get probation on the first conviction
and sometimes for several.

"We don't try them --- they plead or the state drops the charges," said
chief Fulton Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Long, who noted dealers
awaiting trial are ideal candidates for bail. "They really don't have
any reason to run."

Michael Thompson, who was killed after shooting Lyons-Williams, was a
prime candidate for probation. Police found a small amount of cocaine in
the house on Lakewood Terrace --- 58 hits of crack and some powder.

"He'd never been arrested before," said Atlanta police Detective Dick
Rose. "He was probably facing six months probation."

Most dealers don't carry enough drugs to face a drug-trafficking charge,
which has a tougher penalty, and judges and prosecutors focus on murder,

robbery and rape when setting cases for trial. Fulton District Attorney
Paul Howard noted his office received 18,000 cases last year and nearly
half of them were drug crimes --- excluding drug-related crimes. Even if
the 17 Superior Court judges tried a case a week, they would barely cut
into the backlog of violent felonies, which means dope peddlers are free
on bond and can wait for any plea bargain they like.

"When a system is as overcrowded as the Fulton system is, defendants
control the plea negotiations," said Gwinnett County District Attorney
Danny Porter. "They dictate what they'll take."

Districts with smaller caseloads can dole out tougher punishments, which
in effect raise the state average sentence for sale or distribution of
cocaine to 5.7 years, Porter said.

But even that average is a mirage because it doesn't account for parole.
Most imprisoned dealers become eligible for release after a third of
their sentence and the prisons need to make space for new inmates.

If courts routinely free dealers --- at least until they kill somebody
- --- why send officers crashing through doors?

Atlanta City Councilman C.T. Martin, who wants a review of search
techniques, has asked Police Chief Beverly Harvard to find ways to keep
officers safer after Lyons-Williams was killed and her 35-year-old
partner, Thaddeus Chambers, was wounded.

"I don't know if it's fair to ask a police officer to go out and make
cases that aren't going to be prosecuted," Porter said. "But the
alternative is to ask them not to enforce the law and I'm not sure that
is viable."

Atlanta Police Deputy Chief C.B. Jackson said the department is already
reviewing the raid, as it always does in a police shooting, and it will
likely complete it after the 39-year-old Lyons-Williams' funeral on

Jackson said narcotics officers would continue the raids. Dealers need
to be arrested; crack houses need to be shut down; neighborhoods need to
be made safe --- or at least a little safer.

"This is something police departments do 24-7, 365 days a year," Jackson

But others --- from constitutional scholars to some law officers ---
have questioned the wisdom of many of the raids in which police
typically kick the door immediately after announcing themselves. It
creates a chaotic, adrenaline-packed environment that puts officers at
risk and also sometimes people who aren't the target of arrest.
Wednesday's shootout happened in a boardinghouse where people rented

Police say the raids stop dealers from destroying the drugs --- the
evidence. But both defense lawyers and prosecutors say searches seldom
yield enough narcotics to translate into a 10-year trafficking sentence.

"Obviously, if they get caught with less quantity, they're better off,
but you have to look at what you would expect to find anyway," said
Steve Sadow, a criminal defense lawyer.

Long, the judge, said statistics depict the "drug war" as futile but
society demands enforcement of drug laws. "The people who live in these
neighborhoods who are not users and dealers really want these people out
of there," she said. "They have 5-year-olds who can't go out and play."

But Sadow disagreed: "Numbers are the way law-enforcement agencies
justify their own existence ... and it puts officers --- people on the
front line --- at risk because statistics are what their agencies are
looking for."

Regardless, right now the system that lets drug dealers escape prison
causes the neighborhoods to lose faith in it and undermines quality of
life, said Howard, the Fulton DA. Restoring respect requires a more
effective system, which may mean bringing fewer but better cases, hiring
more police to patrol streets and building more treatment and
educational centers to tackle a problem that is as much medical and
cultural as criminal, he said.

So far nobody has found the answer.

"Your punishment aspect has got to get a lot better but that alone is
not going to solve the drug problem in Fulton County," Howard said. "The
coming mayoral election ought to be a debate about who is going to
improve the criminal justice system."

Sherry Lyons-Williams tried.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Doc-Hawk