Convicted criminals set to spend years behind bars go missing thanks to judges' generosity

DETROIT (WXYZ) - Briona Leverett last saw her big brother Cedell the day before he was murdered. The husband and father was gunned down outside Eastland Mall in 2010 by a man that a judge let free just hours earlier.    

"My brother was one of a kind he was a family man," Briona said. "His most prized possession was his family and his children. He was just an all around good guy who didn't deserve for this to happen to him."

The man who pulled the trigger didn't need to have the chance. That same day, Demetrius Edwards learned he'd spend up to 12 years in prison after pleading guilty to armed robbery and firearm charges.

Judge Bruce Morrow could have taken him into custody then and there, but instead he gave Edwards six more weeks of freedom, and the prosecutor on the case did not object.

That same night, Edwards gunned down Leverett. He was found guilty of his murder last August in another judge's courtroom. This time, he was sent straight to prison.

In Wayne County Circuit Court, some convicted criminals are enjoying a new lease on life.  They were supposed to spend years locked up but thanks to a judge's generosity, they're free to roam the streets. 

Since our last report, little has changed. Over a recent 4 month stretch, 77 men and women failed to return to court after their conviction.  Most of the crimes were minor enough to just warrant probation. but many did not.

Four-time felon Douglas McCray II pled guilty to two firearm offenses in February, agreeing to spend 5 years behind bars.  Judge Margaret Van Houten scheduled his sentencing  almost 4 months later and  McCray never showed up.  He's been missing for 144 days.

Timothy Littles agreed to spend 5 years in prison, too. Already convicted of armed robbery and peddling cocaine, he copped to more drug and weapons charges in April. Judge Ulysses Boykin continued his bond for weeks, and then months. Littles has been missing since July.

And 4-time felon David Bevele pled to two gun charges that would put him in prison until 2018.  But Judge Daniel Hathaway gave him 6 weeks until he'd be sentenced.  Bevele hasn't set foot in a courtroom since. 

In Michigan, judge's are afforded a great deal of leeway when deciding whether to continue a criminal's bond. With few exceptions, they can choose to give them weeks or months more of freedom unless there is clear and convincing evidence that the defendant will not be a danger.

"If you want to solve the problem in Detroit, you have to solve the crime problem first," said Matthew Maddock, president of A-1 Bail Bonds. "And these irresponsible judges that keep releasing people time and time again are making havoc in their own communities. It breaks my heart."

None of the judges involved in these decisions agreed to talk to us for this story, except for Judge Vonda Evans.

She initially declined a sit-down interview, but we caught up with her outside of the Detroit Athletic Club in November with questions about first-time felon Arrick Lanier, charged with armed robbery, felonious assault and impersonating a Detroit Police officer.

At the corner of Joy and Evergreen, a man testified that Lanier crashed into his car, got out and showed him a badge.  He said he pointed a gun in his face, searched him and said: "...I'm gonna shoot."

After making a plea deal that included 9 months in jail and undergoing mental health screening, Lanier asked Evans to give him a few weeks to tend to serious health problems.  The judge agreed and the prosecutor did not object.  Today, Arrick Lanier is missing.

"Well quite naturally I am concerned, but at the end of the day, we have to make a determination of who's going to be in that jail and who's not going to be in jail," Evans said.

"If he does something else like what he was accused of while he was out, will you feel at all responsible?" asked Channel 7's Ross Jones.

"I'm doing the best that I can, the only person that should be responsible for what people do are the people that do what they do," Evans responded.

Evans said deciding who to take into custody is sometimes influenced by available jail space.  While overcrowding isn't a problem in state prisons—where virtually all of these defendants would spend their sentences—the county's jails are overloaded by hundreds, and that's where these criminals are held until their sentences begin.

"It's very hard always having the media over-scrutinizing what we're doing when we're trying to do our best," Evans said.

Months after our first report, the state's judicial tenure commission held a hearing accusing Judge Bruce Morrow of giving other defendants bond when he shouldn't have.  He's facing discipline from the Supreme Court, and Briona Leverett hopes he gets it.

"If the judge wouldn't have given him those few days or weeks, we wouldn't be sitting here right now," she said. "I have a brother that was killed due to him."

Contact Investigator Ross Jones at rjones@wxyz.com or at (248) 827-9466.

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