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Old 07-20-2003, 02:54 AM
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Default Blount County girl charged w/ murder of police officers fell thru cracks in system

Running the roadblocks
How Fallon Tallent got through the system

July 20, 2003

KNOXVILLE - Before the age of 15, she had already earned a reputation with area law enforcement. Just months after her 18th birthday, she had her first brush with the judicial system as an adult. And, now, at 21 -- after yet another run from the law -- she stands accused of killing two officers.

"Well," the deputy began, "we finally know where Fallon Tallent is."

Instinctively, Tennessee Highway Patrol Sgt. George Pierce reached for the file tucked above the sun visor of his patrol car. Pierce had been looking for Tallent for nearly five months -- ever since she failed to show up in court on three charges Pierce had filed against her.

"Where is she?" Pierce asked.

The Blount County deputy seemed puzzled at the question.

"I'd been real busy that day, and I hadn't seen the news or listened to the radio," Pierce recalled. "He told me about the two officers in Wilson County who'd been killed. He said the one that did it, that was the girl we'd been looking for."

Donna Blackburn was in her office at the state Board of Probation and Parole on that same July 9 day when she heard the news of the officers' deaths.

Tallent had been placed under the supervision of Blackburn's office just three months earlier.

"Ms. Tallent had been instructed on the day she was convicted to report to her probation officer within 48 hours of her release from jail," Blackburn said.

But Tallent never did. Worse, Blackburn said, her probation officer didn't know she had left the Davidson County Jail.

"You can't help but think what would have happened had our officer known she was out and hadn't reported," she said.

Slipping through cracks

Wilson County Deputy John Muncie and Mount Juliet Sgt. Jerry Mundy were killed when they tried to block Tallent's path with spike strips. The justice system employs a different set of roadblocks to try to stop criminals -- arrest warrants, courtrooms, probation officers and jail cells.

In the three years since she entered the adult judicial system, Tallent has managed to dodge them all.

"The system has failed again," said Wilson County Sheriff Terry Ashe. "The criminal always gets the benefit of that failure. This time, it's an overcrowded system and a failure to pay attention to details.

"But let me tell you something. She stole something more precious to me than any automobile. She took something from our community. With every breath that I have, I'm going to make sure that this time she pays a price."

Tallent is behind bars in Nashville, charged with two counts of first-degree murder and facing a possible death sentence in the July 9 deaths of Muncie, 43, and Mundy, 49.

Since 2000, Tallent has been arrested more than a dozen times, charged with more than 30 crimes in four counties. She has spent less than 19 months in jail for the entire lot.

A review of her trek through the justice system revealed a series of cracks in the system through which Tallent slipped:

Tallent failed to show up for court hearings more than a dozen times. Although warrants were issued for her arrest on those missed court hearings, failure to appear does not net a defendant more jail time. Tallent was freed on probation in three counties on five different occasions despite her history of missed court appearances.

There is no statewide system to track defendants placed under the supervision of local probation offices. There exists a hodgepodge of private and governmental probation offices across the state, with no direct link between them. Tallent was on probation in three different counties at the same time.

Thirteen charges filed against Tallent were dismissed because witnesses, including police officers, failed to show up for court. In one case, a judge has conceded the officer was not notified of the hearing. In other cases, prosecutors and officers are at odds over whether the officers were informed of the hearings.

There is no statewide information system that allows an easy tracking of criminals charged with or convicted of misdemeanors. Judges can order background checks on individual defendants, a process that can take days or even weeks. But access to that information is limited.
"The system's been failing a long time with her," said Knoxville Police Chief Phil Keith. "The bottom line is she wasn't held accountable."

Police knew Fallon Tallent

By the age of 14, Tallent was already in the custody of the state, deemed uncontrollable by her grandmother and the juvenile court system.

Before she turned 15, Tallent's criminal exploits earned her infamy when she leaped from the trunk of a car and pointed a gun at three Alcoa police officers -- an encounter captured on videotape later used to train other officers to always expect the unexpected.

"That video, from what I keep hearing, made her notorious," Sheriff Ashe said. "As far as the system is concerned, somebody hasn't been paying as much attention to her on the streets as they have in a training video."

Tallent's first arrest as an adult came four months after her 18th birthday when a Blount County deputy encountered her stumbling through a yard, high on cocaine.

She was arrested and jailed for a little more than four months. A few months after her release, Knoxville police officers encountered her sitting in a car parked in the middle of the street, crack cocaine strewn in the seat beneath her.

She has been caught three times in Knoxville with homemade pipes used to smoke crack cocaine in her pocket.

"She's a crack head," Knox County Assistant District Attorney General Ta Kisha Fitzgerald said.

The addiction, Fitzgerald said, dictated her lifestyle and her criminal behavior.

"She (began) picking up charges we expect a crack head to pick up," Fitzgerald said.

She lived wherever she could find a bed, hanging out near housing projects and at apartments considered by police to be "crack houses," rundown, often vacant dwellings used by crack users to smoke the drug and sleep off its nasty aftereffects.

Trooper Pierce said Tallent also "shacked up" with men, trading sex for money or drugs. Sometimes she traded other people's cars for crack, primarily vehicles belonging to men with whom she was living, authorities allege.

The car owners, in turn, would report their vehicles stolen. Tallent has been charged five times with car theft, a felony. But she has only been convicted of the crime once because the owners of the cars reported stolen rarely showed up in court to press charges.

"We tend to suspect many of these cases are what they call quail cars," Knox County District Attorney General Randy Nichols said. "We suspect these cars were gotten in an exchange for drugs."

Her driver's license was revoked, so anytime she was caught behind the wheel of a car, she committed a crime.

Nichols said Tallent quickly began to amass an arrest record he called "typical" for "people addicted to crack cocaine."

"They're pretty easy targets for police," he said. "The police knew Fallon Tallent."

But there was one criminal habit that tended to separate Tallent from the typical "crack head" in Knoxville police circles: Officers contend she'd do just about anything to avoid arrest.

She often lied to police about her identity to try to avoid arrest, records show. She also tried to outrun police cars, speeding and veering into oncoming traffic, according to court records. Knoxville police have pursued her three times in just over a year. They caught her only once.

Offenders like Tallent -- drug addicts with lengthy arrest records for misdemeanor charges -- are not, however, considered dangerous criminals, Nichols concedes.

"We minimize crime," Nichols said. "I'm guilty myself. I think we ought to rethink some of that."

It takes a felony

If addiction was the source of Tallent's crime problem, the judicial system did nothing to solve it, officials admit. She has never been ordered to undergo drug treatment. Her stints in jail were brief, the longest jail term spanning nine months.

"The maximum sentence for (a misdemeanor) is 11 (months and) 29 (days)," Nichols said. "Experts tell me it takes 14 months just to have a chance to break an addiction."

Sheriff Tim Hutchison points to Tallent's case as an example of why we need harsher punishment, putting more misdemeanor criminals behind bars instead of freeing them to avoid building more jails.

It's an issue over which he and Nichols, who has lobbied against the construction of a new Knox County Jail, have been at odds for years.

Nichols sees Tallent as a poster child for the need for more residential drug treatment centers subsidized by tax dollars so poor people with no insurance can get help.

"I don't know of any treatment you get in jail," he said. "Everybody in this system knows these (addicts) are going to re-offend. What are you going to do? Lock up the whole world? That's the discussion we need to start having. Some people are going to say, 'You're just soft on crime.' But I deal in facts, and the facts are these people are addicted to drugs and alcohol.

"We need to start building treatment facilities. I believe we can do that at less cost to the taxpayers than locking these people up."

State Rep. Frank Buck, D-Dowelltown, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, agrees Tennessee is "woefully deficient in our treatment of drug offenders." Felons, Buck noted, are far more likely to get state-funded drug treatment than misdemeanor criminals.

"That serious help doesn't come until they commit a felony," he said.

But Buck is not convinced simply building more treatment centers or funding treatment for poor, uninsured people will stem the flow of addiction-fueled crime.

"Until these people want to get off drugs or alcohol, you can't help them," he said. "They've got to decide they want to do it. This Tallent - she's following the same pattern thousands of others have followed."

State of miscommunication

Every day in counties across Tennessee, hundreds of people like Tallent are placed on probation. There are two probationary systems in the state.

Blackburn heads the state's probationary system, which handles felons. It is a statewide system, with a series of regional departments managed by a single administrative office.

Misdemeanor offenders fall under the jurisdiction of county probationary programs. Each county in Tennessee is responsible for operating and managing its own system. There is no centralized overseer. Each county office operates independently. Some counties contract out probationary services to private firms. Others, like Knox County, use governmental probation programs.

There are two levels of probation, supervised and unsupervised. The rules for a person placed on unsupervised probation are few: Stay out of trouble, pay your fines. The requirements are more restricting for a person placed on supervised probation.

Criminals under supervision are supposed to report to their probation officers on a regular basis. They, too, are supposed to stay out of legal trouble. Most are supposed to hold down a job so they can pay financial penalties. Those under supervision also may have to perform community service or attend court-ordered counseling or rehabilitation programs. Under supervision, drug addicts are supposed to find help in getting treatment.

The first time Tallent was convicted in Knox County, she was placed on unsupervised probation. She walked into court that day in October 2001 with a cocaine possession conviction on her record. She faced nine misdemeanor charges. She already had failed to show up for court on those charges three times.

Still, Fitzgerald said, unsupervised probation seemed a reasonable disposition.

"That's the first level," she said.

Within four months, Tallent had been arrested on three more misdemeanor charges. But her probation was not violated. Instead, she spent two days in jail, agreed to plead guilty to the three charges and was placed on supervised probation.

"We took it up a notch," Fitzgerald said.

Less than two weeks later, Tallent was in the Sevier County Jail, charged with car theft. She spent 30 days behind bars. A reluctance on the part of the car owner to press charges prompted Sevier County prosecutors to lower the felony charge to a misdemeanor, officials said.

She was placed on supervised probation in Sevier County and freed. There is no mention in Sevier County court records of Tallent's probation in Knox County. No one in Knox County sought to violate her probation despite the conviction.

In less than a month, Tallent racked up 10 more charges in Knox and Blount counties. She spent a month behind bars in Knox County, awaiting court action. On May 29, 2002, her Knox County probation was revoked. She was ordered to serve another eight months in jail. But she remained on probation in Sevier County.

Within weeks of her release from the Knox County Jail, Tallent was accused of three new crimes and failed to show up for hearings in both Knox and Blount county courts.

On March 15, officers in Davidson County tried to stop Tallent, who was driving a stolen car. She fled, and a high-speed chase ensued, leading her into Wilson County, where she finally stopped. On April 2, she pleaded guilty to her first felony -- car theft -- and two misdemeanors.

This time, Tallent, now a felon, was placed under the wing of Blackburn's state probation program. Nearly a year after she was first placed on probation in Sevier County, officials there filed a warrant to violate it, saying she had done nothing to comply with the court's orders. There is no mention in that Sevier County warrant of either the Davidson County conviction or her legal woes in Knox County.

Blackburn said Tallent's case was assigned to a new probation officer "fresh out of college." Tallent was one of about 100 on the probation officer's caseload, Blackburn said.

Because Tallent had been ordered to serve a 60-day jail term before her probation would begin, Blackburn said the officer assumed Tallent would be in jail until June 1. But court records show Tallent's jail term in Davidson County ended May 13, when she was returned to face charges in Knox, Blount and Sevier counties.

By June 25, Tallent was free. She never reported to her probation officer in Davidson County, but no warrant for her arrest was issued.

"It's made us look harder at how we track cases," Blackburn said. "What this has shown us is our officers need to be as proactive as possible. Because of this situation, we're putting processes in place to track them better. ... This one (Tallent's case) has really gone straight to my heart."

State Rep. Joe Fowlkes, D-Cornersville, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, knows the state needs a better information system to track misdemeanor criminals.

"The problem is having the money to do that," he said. "If we had the money to do it, we would. What's worse: a person who commits one felony or a person committing 15 misdemeanors? We need to be keeping up with these (misdemeanor criminals)."

Asked whether the committee would consider sponsoring legislation on the issue, Fowlkes responded, "It's impossible ... because of the money situation."

Buck said he has been working with the state Supreme Court's Administrative Office of the Courts to come up with a plan to link court information among all 95 Tennessee counties. But it is an uphill battle, he said.

"Each judicial district and every law enforcement agency is so stubborn and so jealous of their own territory," he said.

'They never notified me'

THP Sgt. Pierce spent hours inside a Blount County courtroom on Feb. 27, waiting on Tallent to show up.

"I waited until the whole courtroom cleared," he recalled.

Tallent never arrived. Pierce had charged Tallent with three crimes in 2002 after she crashed a male companion's car and abandoned the wreckage. No one was hurt, but someone could have been, Pierce said.

The car had veered into an oncoming lane of traffic before crashing into an embankment, he said.

After Tallent missed court in February, Pierce looked for her, checking with her grandmother in hopes of finding her, he said. Weeks turned to months. Pierce kept Tallent's file close at hand, waiting for word she had been arrested for failing to appear in court.

Pierce did not know about Tallent's March arrest in Davidson County. He said he was never notified Tallent was returned to Blount County in May to face his charges.

"I never heard another word about it," he said.

When he learned Tallent was allegedly responsible for the deaths of the two Wilson County officers, Pierce made himself a note to contact Blount County District Attorney General Mike Flynn to let authorities know his charges needed to be added to the list Tallent was now facing.

The News Sentinel learned Thursday Pierce's charges had been dismissed May 19. The newspaper informed Pierce of the dismissal on Friday.

Pierce was stunned.

"They never notified me," Pierce said of the May 19 hearing. "I wanted to prosecute her. I don't know how they get by with it. You don't dismiss a reckless driving case. (The court system) lets you know what they want you to know. When I'm subpoenaed, I go to court."

Blount County Sessions Judge Bill Brewer said he does not remember that particular day in court. He confirmed no subpoena was issued to inform Pierce of the May 19 hearing. Although he said someone from the clerk's office could have called Pierce about the hearing, "in all fairness, he probably was not notified."

"Actually, we were all under the impression that Sgt. Pierce had retired," Brewer said.

Flynn said he does not assign a prosecutor to handle THP cases filed in Blount County, leaving the clerk's office essentially in charge of managing subpoenas.

"That's just the way we've always done it," he said.

Tallent's case won't change that, he said.

Pierce said the incident is disheartening.

"I hate to see stuff like that happen," he said. "It makes you feel like why should we do this job? The charges get dismissed without my knowledge and now this girl (Tallent) has had an accident that killed two officers."

Knox County prosecutors contend they were forced to dismiss 10 charges against Tallent because officers with the Knoxville Police Department failed to show up for hearings. Eight of those charges involved high-speed pursuits.

"The file does not reflect any witnesses showing up," Fitzgerald said of a May 2002 hearing at which the pursuit charges were dropped. She said a KPD officer failed to show up for a hearing last month in another of Tallent's cases, prompting another dismissal.

Records show subpoenas were issued for the KPD officers cited as witnesses. Nichols said the Knox County Sheriff's Office is charged with serving those subpoenas.

"They generally take bundles of subpoenas (for KPD officers in a variety of cases) and just deliver those bundles to KPD's headquarters," Nichols said.

Chief Keith said there is no way to confirm the officers actually received the subpoenas. KCSO deputies indicate on the subpoenas that they served each document "by hand" to the officers listed in each one, Keith said. Dropping off a bundle at KPD's front desk is not the same as serving each officer personally, he said.

"(Officers) have actually gotten subpoenas after the court date has already passed," he said.

Fitzgerald said she sent letters to the KPD officers needed as witnesses in Tallent's case, notifying them of the court dates. She has copies of the letters in the case file.

Keith said there is no proof the officers' received the letters.

"They say they were never notified," Keith said. "These officers are reliable."

Keith and Nichols agree there have been other instances in which cases were dismissed because officers failed to appear for court hearings.

"It is a problem, particularly with KPD," Nichols said, noting the agency generates some three-fourths of all criminal charges handled in Knox County. "I'm not trying to beat up on the police. What's happened around here is we've gotten a little lax ... We think we've had too many cases dismissed for failure to prosecute, and we've been in discussion within the past two or three months about that issue."

Keith and Nichols said delays in prosecuting cases are far too commonplace in Knox County's court system. Officers can get frustrated, failing to show up because they assume the case will be reset or losing track of the case as it stalls in the system, both men said.

"The officers know nothing is going to happen that first (court hearing)," Nichols said.

Keith said his agency is looking at e-mail to keep officers notified of court hearings. He also has asked Nichols to notify supervisors when officers fail to show up.

A sheriff's guarantee

Sheriff Ashe is trying not to play the "what if game" as he grieves the loss of Mundy and Muncie.

"We're all playing Monday morning quarterback," he said. "I don't want to do that."

But two questions, he said, continue to haunt him.

"Why (wasn't) she in put in jail in Knox County back then and why didn't they do something to stop her (when she fled from Knoxville officers) that day (when Mundy and Muncie were killed)?" Ashe asked.

Ashe would like to think the two officers did not die in vain. He wants to believe scrutiny of the system's shortcomings in Tallent's case will bring change. But Ashe said a dark cloud of grief is keeping him from seeing any silver lining.

"I am absolutely heartbroken," he said. "All I can really guarantee is that every time (Tallent) darkens the door of a courthouse, I'll be right there. I'm not going to let her slip through any more cracks."
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