Judge Shawn LaGrua, Atlanta.
Judge Shawn LaGrua, Atlanta. (Handout Photo)

It’s a Friday morning in Fulton County Superior Court Judge Shawn LaGrua’s courtroom, and—as is often the case—the benches are packed with men and women who’ve run afoul of the law.

But this courtroom crowd seems unusually cheerful, even ebullient, exchanging smiles and greetings with the genial deputies and voicing support for each other as they stride to the podium before the judge.

As participants in LaGrua’s “My Journey Matters” program, the largely youthful assemblage has good reason to for its high spirits: All of them have histories including serious felonies and have been granted a rare chance to show that. if they can meet strict guidelines, pursue an education or find and keep a job, they may be able to stave off a return to jail, often for very stiff sentences, and build a new life.

A smiling LaGrua—sporting an Atlanta Falcons “Rise Up!” sweatshirt in advance of what will be a disappointing Super Bowl—calls out names, and the onlookers clap and cheer as, one by one, attendees step forward, some briskly and beaming, others a bit sheepish.

“Let me see your book report,” she says, reaching for the required monthly assignment. “So how did you like ‘Lord of the Flies?’”

“It was good,” comes the reply.

“You write very well,” LaGrua says after perusing the report quickly. After quizzing the man about his progress at Atlanta Tech, she moves on to a young lady who laments that her attempt to enter a real estate school came up dry.

“Ah, this is one of those, ‘We’re going to teach you how to flip houses,’ then they suck your money deals,” LaGrua says.

One by one they give details about job searches, GED training, drug test results. One young man’s book report on “something about banning video games” has clearly been copied from the internet.

“How many times have I told you?” LaGrua asks. “If you copy it, I’ll know it. Two book reports next month.”

For all the good humor, the stakes are high: Many have already served time for juvenile or adult offenses, and their success here might determine whether the judge or prosecutor attentively observing the proceedings will put them back behind bars.

Although modeled on the rapidly spreading “accountability courts” for low-level offenders with substance or mental health problems—such as the DUI court which LaGrua helped launch in DeKalb County when she was solicitor general there more than 10 years ago—the “My Journey Matters” program is both unique and controversial in that it strives to keep serious felons on the straight and narrow, and out of jail.

“If you and your wife go out for dinner and somebody hits you in the head and takes her purse, I can’t make a legitimate argument about why that person should not go to jail for 10 years,” says LaGrua. “But what do you do in 10 years when he gets out, with no education, no job skills, nowhere to go?” she asks. “There’ll just be another victim, and he’s going back to prison.”

From Prosecutor to Giver of Second Chances

LaGrua seems an unlikely jurist to create such a program, which generally targets 16- to 29-year-old offenders facing charges for aggravated assault, burglary, robbery and armed robbery.

A career prosecutor, LaGrua grew up an “Army brat” and attended high school in Germany before returning stateside when her father was assigned to the Pentagon. After earning a political science degree at the University of Georgia (“I have no idea why”), she attended law school at Georgia State University.

Over three summers in law school, LaGrua interned with the U.S. Army JAG Corps at Fort Gordon, the secretary of state’s office of administrative hearings and the office of then-Fulton County District Attorney Lewis Slaton.

“Once I got to the DA’s office, I knew that was all I ever wanted to do,” LaGrua says.

Law degree in hand, LaGrua dropped resumes with Slaton, former DeKalb DA Bob Wilson and Gwinnett DA Danny Porter.

All three offices responded, and LaGrua decided to go with the DeKalb office, where she says she’d been told there was “a little more hands-on training.”

“Even now, Fulton’s more of a ‘trial by fire’ office,” she observes. “There’s just so much serious crime here.”

She’d only been on the job a couple of weeks when she was invited a horrendous murder involving 14-year-old Richard Gellner, who stabbed a 19-year-old girl 53 times in a Dunwoody home.

LaGrua was fascinated with the process of collecting DNA evidence and using Luminol to highlight the blood of both victim and attacker smeared throughout the house. Gellner’s fingertip had been bitten off during the struggle. After a pause, LaGrua retrieves a small square of graying wallboard bearing his bloody handprint, faded to a faint brown.

“Kind of sick,” she says of the macabre memento.

LaGrua says she learned a lot as a “baby lawyer,” not only from her colleagues in the DA’s office but from sparring with noted defense lawyers like Steve Sadow, Bruce Harvey, Bob Fierer and Bruce Maloy.

“I loved being a prosecutor; I loved the trial work and putting the pieces of a case together,” she says.

After a few years, LaGrua signed on for a newly-created position with the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia for what was supposed to be a drug prosecution team, “but it turned out to be an asset forfeiture program.”

Within two years, she was in the Fulton County DA’s office, where she spent nine years.

One of her first cases involved the 1992 “Dirty Cops” crime ring, which began with the robbery-murder of Goldrush Showbar strip club owner Henry Jeffcoat. The investigation ultimately uncovered a professional crime ring involving five law enforcement officers, including Atlanta and Riverdale cops and a Fulton County deputy.

Because LaGrua’s supervisor, Senior ADA Al Dixon, was a former APD officer, “the case ended up in my lap,” LaGrua says.

Two former Riverdale officers pleaded guilty to murder charges; over the course of a six-week trial, the prosecution called more than 100 witnesses and ended up convicting the rest of the gang on charges including conspiracy, robbery and burglary.

On her bookshelf, turned away from casual view, LaGrua has a group photo of the officers smiling into the camera before their scheme was uncovered.

“That case changed my focus to corruption work,” she says.

In 1999, she took a job in the Tallapoosa Circuit prosecutor’s office, hoping she might work her way up to circuit DA.

“My first day, I saw all these inmates in the courthouse, with no deputies around,” she says. Alarmed, she asked a colleague what was going on.

“Oh, they probably just sent ‘em over from the jail,” came the response.

Returning to DeKalb DA, Then on the Fulton Bench

“It was pretty laid back,” she says. The job “wasn’t really a good fit,” she says, and in 2001 she accepted an invitation from then-DeKalb DA J. Tom Morgan to return.

At the time, the county was roiled by the assassination of Sheriff-elect Derwin Brown upon the orders of his defeated rival, Sheriff Sidney Dorsey, in December of 2000.

“I said I’d come back if I could work the Sidney Dorsey case,” recalls LaGrua. Morgan allowed her to assist on the case at night and on weekends while she served as staff prosecutor to Superior Court Judge Hilton Fuller in the daytime.

When the trial judge, Cynthia Becker, moved the case to Albany out of concern for pretrial publicity, she hadn’t realized that a big Baptist convention was scheduled there, as well.

“The hotels were all full, so we ended up staying at a quail-hunting camp,” LaGrua says. “It was pretty rough,” she says. “The place where the men stayed looked like Snuffy Smith’s house; ours wasn’t so bad.”

With the testimony of two co-conspirators-turned-witnesses, Brown was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Two co-conspirators, who had been acquitted on state charges, were later sentenced to life by a federal jury for their involvement in the murder.

In 2004, Gov. Sonny Perdue named LaGrua DeKalb’s solicitor general to replace Gwen Keyes, who resigned to run for DA.

LaGrua remained solicitor only through 2007, “then I got unelected,” she says. Former Secretary of State Karen Handel recruited LaGrua to serve in the newly-created post of inspector general for her officer, where LaGrua oversaw investigations into voting fraud, securities, and professional licensing boards, among other duties.

In 2010, Perdue tapped her for a newly-created seat on the Fulton bench.

Despite her career as a prosecutor, LaGrua says she hadn’t been on the bench long when she realized that putting people behind bars was not an end unto itself.

“When I started out as a prosecutor,” she says, “the average age for violent criminals was maybe 17 to 19, with an 11th grade education. When I took the bench, I was seeing armed robbery, burglary and aggravated assault offenders who were 15 to 17 years old, with an eighth- or ninth-grade education before they dropped out.”

So about six-and-a-half years ago she launched what would become “My Journey Matters.”

I don’t really know where it came from,” she says. “I think, as a prosecutor, I never got to see the folks that made it. … I thought, ‘There has to be another solution.’”

As part of the program, LaGrua and her staff have an overflowing bookshelf with a wide array of fiction and nonfiction works from which the program’s participants can choose to write their reports.

A courtroom antechamber also contains an impressive selection of donated clothing and shoes, so that her charges can look their best when they go for an interview for a job or college entrance interview.

In recent months she’s also recruited volunteers from the legal community and beyond to staff a board for “My Journey Matters” and has registered as a 501(c)(3).

LaGrua says the program couldn’t survive without the support of DA Howard, Public Defender Vernon Pitts, Sheriff Ted Jackson and Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields, whose lawyers and officers volunteer to work on it in addition to their other duties.

About 400 people have been or are currently involved in the program, she says, and the apparent success rate is “about that of accountability courts,” she says.

She’s waiting for an analysis of figures from a Georgia State University professor so she can more accurately judge the program’s success—and so she can have some ammunition for fellow judges, who have often been leery of adopting a program that may put a dangerous felon back on the street.

“It’s not without its risks,” she concedes. She points to the case of a carjacking defendant she gave a reduced sentence with a “backload” of 45 years on probation.

“He got out and committed three home invasions,” she says. “Now he’s back in jail for 45 years.”

She recalls telling the victims, ‘You have every right to be upset. If it was my daughter, my sister, I’d certainly be upset. We were trying something—it didn’t work. And I’m sorry.’”

“My impression is that they understood,” she says, “but I may be wrong.”

“How many time does it have to work to make it OK?” she muses. “I don’t know the answer. Those are the cases that scare me.”