December 13, 2013

Drug planter sentenced to 18 months

Rachel Brown

— A Dalton man who authorities said started a chain of events that briefly sent some innocent people to jail and led to two fired Murray County Sheriff’s officers being sent to prison was sentenced in federal court on Thursday to 18 months behind bars for framing a woman by planting drugs on her car.

In a plea deal in which prosecutors declined to press further charges, Clifford J. Joyce, 27, pleaded guilty in June to one count of conspiring to distribute meth for placing a magnetized metal container of the drug under a tire well on Murray County resident Angela Garmley’s car in August 2012.

Garmley had accused then-magistrate judge Bryant Cochran of making sexual overtures to her in exchange for a possible favorable ruling on a case, and Joyce was one of Cochran’s tenants. Prosecutors said the drugs were planted in an effort to discredit Garmley.

“Why (did he do it)?” U.S. Attorney Jeffrey W. Davis said of Joyce. “Because Mr. Joyce wanted to help out his landlord.”

Cochran has been the target of numerous investigations, including an ethics inquiry during which he resigned after admitting he had pre-signed a handful of warrants, and a workplace sexual harassment lawsuit that is ongoing. He has not been criminally charged. Attorneys on Friday would not say whether they plan to charge him and declined to discuss his role in the case in more detail.

Garmley’s attorney, McCracken Poston, has long asserted Cochran is the mastermind behind a far-reaching scheme in which he sexually harassed several women he came in contact with and used the sheriff’s office and others over whom he had influence to exact revenge on people who didn’t do what he wanted. Through his attorney, Cochran has denied any wrongdoing.

Defense attorney Scott J. Forster of Calhoun asked for leniency for Joyce in court Thursday and requested his client be placed under house arrest, given probation and made to perform community service. He cited the fact that Joyce supports his wife and three children, plus another child on the way, rather than depending on drugs for a living — something Forster said is unusual among defendants who come before the court.

Before he was sentenced, Joyce offered a one-sentence apology to his family, the government and Garmley.

U.S. District Judge Harold L. Murphy agreed with prosecutors that Joyce had done little to cooperate with the investigation other than plead guilty. Joyce could have received up to 20 years in prison and up to a $1 million fine, but Murphy said sentencing guidelines that take into account factors such as the defendant’s criminal history and willingness to cooperate with investigators suggest he receive 12 to 18 months behind bars.

“The defense may want to argue that this is a simple drug case, but it is not,” Davis said. “He got caught framing someone with drugs. He got her arrested, he got the driver (who was with her) arrested.”

“Joyce’s crime strikes at the core of American justice, and it can’t stand,” Davis said. “Without Joyce, there is no crime, there is no arrest and there is no investigation.”

The Murray County Sheriff’s Office charged Garmley on Aug. 14, 2012, with possession of meth after the drugs were discovered during a traffic stop. The man who was driving her home was also charged, but District Attorney Bert Poston dropped those charges less than two weeks later, citing information from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI).

The officer who made the arrest, former deputy Josh Greeson, and his supervisor, former captain Michael Henderson, both pleaded guilty in federal court to obstruction charges after they admitted they lied during a GBI inquiry into the matter before eventually admitting to investigators Cochran had given a tip to be on the lookout for Garmley’s vehicle. The FBI has also participated in the investigation.

Forster questioned the length of the sentence relative to Joyce’s role in the case compared to the two officers who were previously sentenced. Murphy sentenced Henderson to a year and a day in prison and Greeson to 10 months in prison. Both will also have to serve time on probation.

In addition to his prison term, Joyce was sentenced to three years on probation and must perform 100 hours of community service.

“The offense committed by this defendant strikes at the very heart of fairness and justice in a free society, and I can’t think of anything more reprehensible than for an innocent person to go to prison based on conduct such as this,” Murphy said. “While others acted, the precise act done by this defendant is what would have been the key (to Garmley going to jail for something she didn’t do).”