KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A 41 Action News I-Team investigation found changes to Missouri’s bond rules have made it easier for criminal suspects, including those accused of violent crime, to be released from jail in advance of their trials.
The I-Team has looked at a series of cases involving violent crime suspects.
In February, court records state Devon Carter was driving in Westport when his brother, Lavont Carter, and Christien Woody opened fire from the vehicle.
According to police, four people were injured.
Devin Harris, 17, the father of a baby girl, was killed in the shooting.
Harris’ family and friends attended a vigil for him in Westport near where he was gunned down.
"He was still looking forward to raising his daughter and raising her to be one of the best versions of him, but that chance was taken away from him, for what? Anger, violence or just for the heck of it,” Harris’ brother said at the March vigil.
Days after the vigil, police arrested Lavont Carter and Woody.
Both men, along with Devon Carter, who was arrested the night of the shooting, are charged with Harris’ murder and multiple other felonies.
Judge Charles McKenzie denied a bond reduction for Devon Carter.
But Judge R. Travis Willingham reduced the $150,000 full cash bonds for both Lavont Carter and Woody to 10% of that amount, or $15,000.
As a result, both men posted bond and are out of jail as they await trial.
“What I think about that is that my office, we do all that we can,” Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said.
In April, Woody’s attorney, Craig Divine, filed a motion to reduce bond.
The motion states in part, “Defendant has no history of violent behavior and has no convictions for any violent offenses. Defendant does not pose a danger to the community.”
Divine also claimed an extended jail stay while Woody awaited trial would put him at a greater risk for catching COVID-19.
Baker said the pandemic has been an ongoing concern.
“I know that locally, everyone has changed processes because of COVID, and there is just so much space in the jail," she said. "And we're really, really cognizant of making sure jails don't become super-spreaders. That shuts down all kinds of systems. That shuts down our trial ability when you can't get your defendant into the courtroom, because he is on quarantine. That's happened to us already."
However, Baker’s assistant prosecutor, Kristiane Bryant, strongly objected to the bond reduction.
Among her arguments, Bryant wrote, “Woody is known to law enforcement in KCK to be an associate of a group or gang involved in violent activities.”
Additionally, she noted, “The victims in this case are opposed to any reduction in bond.”
In an audio recording the I-Team obtained of the bond reduction hearing for Woody, Judge Willingham said, "What I will do on this matter is I'll change the cash on $150,000 to 10 percent. But I'm going to keep it at $150,000 ten percent with county house arrest and all other conditions."
The judge offered no further explanation for reducing Woody's bond at that hearing.
Reached by phone, a member of Harris' family said she was unaware of Carter and Woody's release from jail.
She said she didn't want to be identified because "These people don't care who they kill."
And she wondered what was on the judge's mind to let them out.
The I-Team recently asked Kansas City, Missouri, Police Chief Rick Smith about violent suspects his officers have arrested being released on bond.
“We always have frustration when we think someone is bad and we see them back out on the street," Smith said. "We put a lot of effort into trying to get what we think are violent felons off the street. We want them to stay off the street."
Defense attorney Tracy Spradlin told the I-Team the Missouri Supreme Court’s Bond Reform Act in 2019 places the burden on the state to keep a suspect in jail.
Spradlin said the state needs to prove the suspect is a flight risk because they missed previous court dates or because they present a danger to the community.
She also said the Bond Reform Act means bonds must be affordable for the suspects.
Baker stopped short of saying the change in bond rules has contributed to increased violence in Jackson County, where Kansas City has already established a new annual homicide record with a few weeks left in 2020.
“You know, it's hard to attribute to one thing, so I would not do that. I would also say I do know the court did engage in a long process to modify those bond rules," Baker said. "We work within the guidelines of course that the court provides to us. But we can always go outside those as long as we establish the reasons why we are going outside those guidelines."
The I-Team found the release from jail of the Westport shooting suspects is not an isolated incident involving suspects accused of violent crimes.
Court records the I-Team obtained show 17-year-old Joshua Reese is accused of shooting and killing a homeless man, Charles Cecil, and injuring Cecil’s wife last year.
Those records claim Reese’s motive was that he wanted to pay $10 instead of $15 to buy some marijuana from Cecil.
Judge Mary Frances Weir set Reese’s bond at `10% of $100,000, or $10,000. Reese’s family was able to post that bond.
However, Reese remained in jail because one of the conditions of the bond was the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office needed to supervise Reese through a GPS monitor, and the department was short on those devices.
In a motion to modify Reese’s bond, his attorney, Heath Stuart, wrote, “It has become known that Jackson County has a severe shortage of ankle monitoring devices required for GPS monitoring.”
Stuart recommended the judge choose a private company for GPS monitoring of Reese or house arrest.
Weir released Reese from jail and placed him on house arrest.
During the bond reduction hearing, Stuart argued Reese was 17 when he was arrested and turned 18 in jail.
Stuart further said if Reese was released from jail, he'd live with his aunt in Kansas City.
Over the objections of the prosecutor who called Reese a danger to the community and a potential flight risk, Judge Weir reduced Reese's bond from $150,000 full cash to ten percent of $100,000 or $10,000 and placed him on house arrest.
In an audio recording of the hearing the I-Team obtained, Judge Weir warned Reese to follow the terms of his bond, including no contact with witnesses, or he'd go back to jail.
"You get one shot, one shot at this. I do consider your age in this, but I don't care the next time," Judge Weir told Reese.
Stuart told the I-Team that Reese has been a model house arrest suspect but declined further comment with the case pending.
Baker said with the Jackson County Legislature’s approval, she plans to start a diversion program for some drug offenders to get direct treatment instead of clogging up the court system with those cases.
"So that way, we can put more of a focus in the courtroom on violent crime cases, which is all what we want to do,” she said.
Baker said the impact of the diversion program would be more pre-trial settlements in more drug cases.
“But those cases are important too, so we want to make sure we don't want to harm public safety. Whatever decisions that we make, we want to make sure that we are supporting public safety as our outcome,” she said.
Another murder suspect released from jail in advance of trial involves a man investigators claim was seeking his own revenge for a previous shooting,
Bryant Robinson is accused of following Michael Garrett in a rented pickup truck, then shooting and killing Garrett, who was a passenger in the car.
Court records state Robinson also shot the female driver of the car Garrett was in, paralyzing her.
Those same records say that police investigated Garrett as the suspect in Robinson’s 2013 shooting, which left him partially paralyzed and in a wheelchair.
But because Robinson refused to cooperate with the investigation, no charges were brought against Garrett.
In Judge Joel P. Fahnestock’s bond order, she wrote, “The defendant has three failures to appear. The allegations are significant.”
However, Fahnestock ruled, “The court has imposed the least restrictive condition or combination of conditions for release.”
Those conditions are 10% of a $100,000 bond or $10,000, which Robinson posted, a lock down house arrest, but no jail.
Court records show Judge Fahnestock also granted Bryant's request to attend a funeral.
While courts records show Bryant, Reese, Carter and Woody have not violated their bond agreements while they await trial, in September, the I-Team reported on Derrell Wade’s case. Wade is accused of robbing a man at gunpoint and then shooting him.
After his release on bond for that case, Wade is now accused of carjacking a man at gunpoint and then leading police on a high-speed chase, which ended in a deadly crash.
In July, court records state Juron Levels, 20, was in a gun battle on Troost Avenue.
Two people suffered non-life-threatening injuries.
Those records also state Levels fired multiple rounds in the direction of a minivan that was occupied by two children under the age of 11.
Kansas City Police recommended Levels should be charged with aggravated assault, unlawful use of a weapon and armed criminal action.
Baker’s office charged Levels with unlawful use of a weapon and armed criminal action, but not aggravated assault.
Judge R. Travis Willingham set Levels’ bond at 10% of $35,000, or $3,500.
Levels was able to post that bond to get out of jail as he awaits trial.
Court records show Levels has not violated his bond as he awaits trial.
Because all these cases are pending, the judicial code of conduct does not allow a judge to publicly comment on decisions in those cases.
However, Missouri's 16th Judicial Circuit Court issued a statement.
"The judges who heard these cases followed the applicable bond rules. They considered all of the factors required by the rules and applied them to the unique facts in each individual case."