By Aaron Morrison, The Appeal

Fulton County DA/Instagram.

Fulton County DA/Instagram.

On Nov. 7, 2010, Michelle Horne held a knife to a woman’s neck and took her purse and wallet, while the woman’s child looked on, according to a grand jury indictment. Horne then sped off in her own vehicle and attempted to evade Atlanta police officers in pursuit. 

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard’s office charged Horne, a then-34-year-old first-time offender, with eight felony and misdemeanor offenses, including armed robbery, aggravated assault, and cruelty to children in the third degree. In 2011, Howard’s office won a conviction against Horne, and she was sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison. Ultimately, she lost an appeal before the Georgia Supreme Court.

But last year, Howard’s office reversed its position in Horne’s case. The office joined Horne’s defense attorneys, Michael Moran and Elizabeth Vila Rogan, a former Fulton County magistrate judge, on an extraordinary motion for a new trial. If granted, the motion would have allowed the Fulton County Superior Court to vacate Horne’s conviction and resentence her to 12 years of probation. A judge denied Rogan’s request on May 29 this year.

The motion is rare in Fulton County: Since 2010, Howard’s office has supported only three other extraordinary motions for a new trial involving a violent offense. Horne’s motion is the only one in Howard’s tenure that concerns armed robbery, per data provided by the DA’s office. In the same year that Horne committed her offense, the county recorded 3,225 robberies.

Advocates, including the Georgia Justice Project, have wondered why Howard—whom they see as an opponent to criminal justice reform measures like pretrial release for violent offenders and bail reform—agreed to the motion in Horne’s case. 

“Georgia prisons are filled with men and women with no prior criminal records who are doing a mandatory 10-year sentence for armed robberies like Ms. Horne’s,” Anna Kurien, a former attorney in the Fulton County public defender’s office, told The Appeal. Kurien learned of Horne’s motion as she prepared to leave the public defender’s office and join The Justice Collaborative, a nonprofit criminal justice policy and media organization. (The Appeal is a project of TJC.)

“While I laud efforts to release people from prison, extraordinary motions for sentence reduction like in Ms. Horne’s case are simply out of reach for defendants too poor to hire private lawyers after their appeal has concluded,” Kurien added.

Michelle Horne’s family is no stranger to the law. Her late father, Edison U. Horne, was a special agent in the FBI for 22 years until his retirement in 1997, and was credited with helping to repair the agency’s relationship with the family of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from what it had been during the J. Edgar Hoover era. 

Her older brother, Derek Horne, completed his undergraduate studies, went to law school, and worked on Capitol Hill in Washington and in Atlanta’s British consulate before establishing his own personal injury firm in Pooler, Georgia.

“Shelly,” as Derek affectionately calls his sister, took a different path. She did one semester at Alabama’s Tuskegee University, their father’s alma mater, before transferring to a school closer to home. She soon dropped out. She struggled with drug addiction, he said. Years later, she was the number-two story on Atlanta-area TV news for leading police on a Sunday afternoon chase after the armed robbery in 2010, Derek recalled.

Derek knew his sister well enough to know that attempts to appeal her conviction gave her time and motivation to address her substance use disorder and rehabilitate in prison. Meanwhile, their mother, Ann Horne, a real estate agent and substitute English teacher, took in Michelle’s then-11-year-old daughter. 

Ann and Derek made a “substantial investment” to pay for Michelle’s appeal and her lawyers, including Rogan. According to Derek, his mother took out as much as $50,000 in loans and refinanced her condo to secure equity, totaling “$100,000 or a little bit more.” Rogan was an attorney at the Atlanta firm Michael Kennedy McIntyre & Associates, recommended by someone with whom Michelle was incarcerated, Derek recalled.

He doubted that the joint motion for his sister’s release would succeed. But he supported the effort because of its potential impact on her morale. “I knew that it provided hope for my sister,” he said.

n their extraordinary motion, filed Sept. 5, Rogan and Executive Assistant District Attorney Linda Dunikoski argued that Horne deserved an early release because she had undergone a remarkable transformation while incarcerated at Pulaski State Prison in Hawkinsville, located about 130 miles south of Atlanta. Rogan wrote that Horne had “maintained an excellent institutional record and has taken steps to prepare to re-enter society.” 

On Sept. 19, Rogan and Dunikoski made similar arguments before Judge Constance Russell, noting that Horne had completed a treatment program for an addiction to cocaine, become a mentor to others in the program, and most important, her attorney argued, expressed remorse toward the victims of her offenses, who were supportive of her early release from prison. 

But Russell, who had sentenced Horne to prison seven years earlier, questioned why the DA had agreed to such a motion.

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