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An Inevitable Collision

Our court system kills again

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With one single, unbroken slash of the pen, Judge W. Robert Bell signed Olivia Gail Sigmon's death warrant.

You can only make out one letter of the signature: his trademark "W." On May 5, 2004, Judge "W" signed the form that suspended Anthony Earmond Marcus' eight- to 10-month sentence for auto theft. Instead, Marcus would get intensive probation and credit for the three months he spent in Mecklenburg County jail, awaiting sentencing.

It was part of a plea bargain deal that allowed Marcus to walk out of court with a slap on the wrist for stealing Charlotte Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon's car in January of 2004. Cannon, who has since left the council, was at the time the city's second highest-ranking elected official and head of the city's public safety committee, which was, ironically, attempting to crack down on auto theft and violence.

At the time he was sentenced for stealing Cannon's car, Marcus had several charges and convictions on his record including misdemeanor larceny, larceny of a motor vehicle and breaking and entering in Pender and New Hanover counties. Another felony auto theft charge was dismissed by the Mecklenburg County District Attorney's Office in 2000. So it's hard to believe that anyone involved, including the district attorney, could have seriously believed that Marcus would stick to the terms of his probation when he walked out of jail that day.

Kids like Marcus who repeatedly steal cars are different than their peers who commit other crimes. National studies show that car theft is one of a handful of crimes that is a gateway for armed robbery and then other more violent crimes.

Marcus was soon AWOL on his probation and two months later, he put a gun in Olivia Gail Sigmon's face and executed her in front of her 11-year-old daughter because he wanted her car. Marcus and his then 16-year-old brother were fresh from another armed robbery at the time, driving a Geo Metro they'd stolen, when they crashed it at the intersection of Tuckaseegee and Berryhill roads. The two immediately turned on Sigmon, the nearest driver, and fled on foot after failing to steal her car.

If you think about it from Marcus' perspective, it's all very logical. After you've stolen the car of the second highest-ranking elected official in the city right out of his driveway, taken your victory lap on the evening news and walked away with probation, you naturally assume you can do whatever the hell you want. Makes sense to me.

The whole thing is just soooo Charlotte. And it's not like you can blame Judge "W." He was just doing what all the judges do hundreds of times a week -- signing plea deal after plea deal in cases where it makes sense, and in those where it really doesn't. Bell says the case is pretty typical of the ones he sees every day.

Perhaps things would have gone differently if the desperately under-funded district attorney's office didn't give Marcus what I call the "felony freebie." There's no official freebie policy, of course, but it seems like a person's first felony charge is almost always dismissed in Mecklenburg County, as Marcus' first felony auto theft charge was in 2000.

Even if Marcus had been allowed to plea bargain that one and gotten probation, it might have tipped the scales that day in May 2004. It might have been enough to put Marcus where he should have been the day he killed Sigmon -- in jail.

Over the last two years, I've done everything but streak naked down Trade Street -- and I haven't completely ruled that out -- to call attention to how under-funded our court system is and the results that produces. As I sat in the file room at the courthouse last week, staring at the "W" scrawled across the page, a neutron bomb went off in my head. In all that time, I never put a priority on questioning the free-wheeling plea bargain culture of the courthouse.

The dozen or so new district attorneys and support staff the state is sending in to shut people like me up are about a third of what we need to catch up with prosecutor's offices in comparable cities like Austin and Portland. I had assumed that that would be better than nothing. But as I sat there, it dawned on me that it won't be enough to change a culture that offers violent repeat criminals little or no jail time in exchange for plea deals that increase processing times. Instead, the plea bargains will just get processed faster. Instead of walking out the door with probation in May, the next Anthony Marcus will be out by March.

By the time police caught up with Marcus, now 21, in October 2004, he had another armed robbery he committed after Sigmon's murder under his belt, for which he is currently -- finally -- serving time.

The culture that murdered Sigmon runs from Republican Mayor Pat McCrory's office to Democratic County Commissioner Parks Helms' office to the benches of the county judges, the prosecutor's office and the state legislature. It's not enough to just throw money at it. Plea bargaining with repeat offenders has to become socially unacceptable, for their sake, and ours.

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