HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – For the second time in six months, the district justice system in Harrisburg is being questioned after murder suspects took advantage of reduced bail to gain their freedom and, according to police, kill.
We caught up with police Chief Thomas Carter Friday afternoon as he slipped into the District Lounge on Third Street in Midtown for a house call. It’s a program called Chat and Chew with the Chief where he patiently fields questions from the community. He says it’s important in the current climate of tension between citizens and the police force.
“I want people to know that my officers are approachable and our concern is for their safety, their welfare, and to be there for them,” Carter said.
But there is concern about the safety of the system after Harrisburg’s most recent homicide. Bryan Taylor was shot and killed, police say, by Markus Williams on July 30.
Williams had been behind bars until July 26, when court documents show that District Justice Paul Zozos lowered his bail from secured to unsecured; basically, a get-out-of-jail-free card. Williams got out and four days later was an accused murderer.
“Nothing good comes from a homicide because it touches so many lives, so many people,” Carter said. “And it makes my crime stats go up. It’s just ridiculous.”
But they’re not just statistics to Carter.
His nephew, John Thomas Carter, was murdered in March. The suspected gunman, Glenn Walker Jr., had been arrested three months earlier for shooting at a man in Harrisburg. He was in jail. The Dauphin County District Attorney recommends that the bail be set at $100,000 when a gun is used, but District Justice George Zozos, Paul’s dad, set Walker’s bail at just $25,000. Walker got out. Carter’s nephew got killed. The trial is pending.
But the chief doesn’t point fingers. He says district justices have a tough job to do and, for the most part, do it well.
“If a defense attorney approaches them and makes a plea for a guy that he’s not a menace to society, you know, people slip through the cracks,” Carter said. “It happens.”
There are hundreds of district justices across the commonwealth. They are elected. They don’t have to be lawyers or have law degrees.
“We have so many across the commonwealth with a range of backgrounds and experience,” said Rich Long, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.
Long wouldn’t speak specifically to Harrisburg’s two cases but strongly recommends that district justices follow a district attorney’s guidelines for bail. But it’s not legally required.
“A DJ would disregard those (guidelines) at their own peril,” Long said.
Or at the peril of others, as two grieving families in Harrisburg can attest.
Dauphin County First Assistant District Attorney Fran Chardo told ABC27 late Friday that it is mandatory for a district justice to consult with prosecutors before reducing bail. Chardo said prosecutors objected to changing Williams’ bail to unsecured, but Paul Zozos overruled them and reduced Williams’ bail.
Neither George nor Paul Zozos was available for comment on Friday.