Bonds granted for a trio of repeat criminal offenders led to a war of words between law enforcement and a local judge last week in an unusually public exchange about the pretrial process.
The issue centers around the arrests of Isaiah Kelly, Demetris Hunter and Hassan Jones following a reported shooting on Feb. 17 following a parade in Trinity Gardens. Police say three bystanders were injured and stray bullets struck an unoccupied car and a nearby home.
Police quickly located and charged Kelly, Hunter and Jones, two of whom were armed with handguns when taken into custody. Police believe the group had an altercation with an unidentified male who also fired shots during the incident.
The three defendants, all 19 years old, were charged with multiple counts of assault.
At an initial court hearing, detectives from the Mobile Police Department and prosecutors with District Attorney Ashley Rich’s office asked District Judge Joe Basenberg to deny bond to all three defendants based on their criminal record and the “danger” they pose to the community.
Basenberg declined and instead granted a bond for all three — paving the way for them to be released from jail until they can get a trial date. The decision prompted swift criticism from Public Safety Director James Barber, MPD Chief Lawrence Battiste and Rich herself.
It’s unusual for officials to go out of their way to publicly address a judge’s decision. Prosecutors are often unhappy with court rulings, but Rich aired her grievances publicly in a live radio interview, and MPD issued a press release denouncing Basenberg’s decision directly.
Battiste said those types of decisions fuel the “revolving door” police often complain about, adding that MPD uses duplicate resources to go after “the same offenders over and over.”
All three of the suspects have a criminal history and each was out on bond from previous charges when they were arrested Feb. 18. Law enforcement officials say that should have negated any bond the trio might have been entitled to receive.
Jones has previous charges for first-degree robbery and assault as well as discharging a gun into a building or vehicle, and Hunter has prior charges for first-degree assault, firing a gun into a building and additional charges for illegally carrying a concealed weapon. However, Kelly’s criminal record is the most notorious.
In 2015, Kelly was involved in the shooting and attempted carjacking of Maria Williamson, who lost an eye after being shot at point-blank range in her car on Dauphin Street in midtown. He was granted youthful offender status in that case, which secured a lighter punishment and removed the conviction from his record.
Last fall, Kelly was arrested again for shooting two teenagers at the Thomas Sullivan Community Center. District Judge George N. Hardesty issued a bond on that charge in November 2017.
Kelly was out on that bond and still on parole for his involvement in Williamson’s shooting during his most recent arrest. Barber said he was “perplexed” and “outraged” Basenberg would grant another bond under those conditions, especially in a case where bystanders were shot.
“Although some judges argue that everyone has a constitutional right to pretrial bail, such rights are forfeited if a defendant commits another offense while on bail,” he said. “That’s not just my opinion, it’s the law.”
However, Basenberg disagrees and told Lagniappe he always follows Alabama’s Constitution when setting bonds in criminal cases.
Though he said judicial ethics prevent him from discussing Hunter’s, Jones’ or Kelly’s cases directly, he said he opens nearly every day in court with a civic lesson on bond law.
“Except for a particular group of capital cases, all criminal offenses in Alabama under our state Constitution have to be considered for bond,” Basenberg said. “No case that we see in district court comes within the exception of that statue.”
He suggested Rich has been arguing that “the mere arrest of somebody is enough to forfeit” the right to a pretrial bond. Rich, however, said that is a mischaracterization, and noted Alabama’s Court of Criminal Appeals covered this issue years ago in Alabama v. Fleming.
“We’re not arguing against the right to a pretrial bond, but this case says we have to recognize a defendant may forfeit that right based on his or her conduct while out on bail,” she said. “What we’re asking Judge Basenberg to do is to enforce the law, because people like Isaiah Kelly are a danger to our community. There should be no hesitation about revoking his bond.”
Three other local judges appear to have sided with prosecutors in these particular cases, though.
After Basenberg’s initial ruling, Rich’s office petitioned the Circuit Court seeking the revocation of the defendants’ bonds from prior offenses. In separate hearings, all three saw their bonds revoked by Judges Jill Phillips, Sarah Stewart and John Lockett, respectively.
As of Feb. 27, all three remained in custody at Mobile Metro Jail. However, Basenberg said that would have been the likely outcome either way considering the conditions of the bonds he set — something he said has been underreported.
Each defendant was given a $30,000 bond with a 10 percent ($3,000) cash requirement, and Basenberg also ordered that, if released, all three would be subject to ankle monitoring, drug testing and other conditions of release he would set himself. All three pleaded not guilty.
“Those young men are not out of jail and they likely won’t be out of jail. There was a finding by the court their behavior warranted an extreme danger to society,” he said. “Even if they post cash bonds they must be fitted with ankle monitors at their expense and there has to be a hearing to determine the parameters of where they can run around.”
Rich has previously previously expressed doubts the effectiveness of ankle monitoring for defendants show to have a history of disregarding the rules or committing violent acts.
Hunter’s attorney, John White, seemed to agree with Basenberg. After the bond hearing last week, he said Basenberg’s order was basically a “no bond” because “the family probably can’t afford it.” In light of the circuit court rulings on his prior bond, that’s now a moot point.
Gabriel Tynes contributed to this report.