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Joycelyn Gugaria at her late father’s home in Alabama. Less than a year after Gugaria’s brother, Joel Tucker, was released from prison, he assaulted her, causing a brain hemorrhage and other injuries. (Lynsey Weatherspoon for ProPublica)

What Happens When Sheriffs Release Violent Offenders to Avoid Paying Their Medical Bills

Sheriffs regularly release sick and injured inmates to avoid paying their hospital bills. But in Alabama, some defendants charged with violent offenses like murder have been let out. And some have gone on to commit new crimes.

Joycelyn Gugaria at her late father’s home in Alabama. Less than a year after Gugaria’s brother, Joel Tucker, was released from prison, he assaulted her, causing a brain hemorrhage and other injuries. (Lynsey Weatherspoon for ProPublica)

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Joel Tucker was booked into Alabama’s Fayette County Jail in December 2014 after being charged with the violent assault of his sister. According to court records, he punched her in the face, leaving her with a brain hemorrhage, a broken shoulder and other injuries.

“My brother almost killed me,” said Tucker’s sister, Joycelyn Gugaria, now 53.

Nonetheless, the following month, the Fayette County sheriff released Tucker on his own recognizance, citing “medical reasons.”

Sheriffs across Alabama and the U.S. regularly find ways to release sick and injured inmates from county jails to avoid paying for their hefty hospital bills, a practice often referred to as medical bond that and ProPublica reported in September. Some sheriffs defend the practice as a way to keep jail medical costs down while allowing people who aren’t a threat to society to access care.

In Alabama, it’s now clear that some of those inmates were in jail awaiting trial on charges that they’d committed violent crimes, even murder, and ProPublica have found.

Tucker is one of more than a dozen violent offenders released from Alabama jails via medical bond that and ProPublica have identified. One shot and killed another man in a nightclub. Another shot and killed a man outside his house. A third man was released the day after he was charged with second-degree assault.

With convictions that include domestic violence and manufacturing and selling drugs, Tucker, now 47, has been in and out of jails and prisons since the 1990s.

While he was out on medical bond after hitting Gugaria, Tucker committed additional crimes, for which he is now serving a 17 ½ year federal prison sentence in Terre Haute, Indiana. He could not be reached for comment.

Rodney Ingle, who at the time was sheriff of Fayette County, said this month that he did not recall the details of Tucker’s case and could not say whether he believed he was right to allow Tucker to be released. But Ingle, whose term as sheriff ended in January, said he does not “think it’s a good idea” to let violent criminals out of jail on medical bond.

“If you’re a violent offender, just because you’ve got a medical issue you shouldn’t be bonded out,” he said. “I don’t think they should be able to get right back out. I don’t agree with that.”

To be sure, many people charged with violent crimes can post bail and be released pending trial. With medical bond, however, the calculus is less about whether the defendant will show up for future court proceedings and more about how much his or her medical care will cost.

The state of Alabama does not keep statistics on how often defendants are released on medical bond or on the charges they faced when they were let go. Cases receive periodic attention when outraged victims file lawsuits or speak up in news reports.

The way sheriffs in Alabama use medical bond is drawing scrutiny following the and ProPublica investigation. State Rep. Neil Rafferty, a Birmingham Democrat who serves on the House health committee, and several of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle said they plan to tackle the issue of medical bond during the 2020 legislative session.

Rafferty said he was appalled that some violent offenders are released from county jails in Alabama so sheriffs can avoid paying their medical bills.

“That’s not good for public safety, if we’re releasing people who are threats to public safety,” he said. “That is ridiculous.”

Accused of Murder, Out on Bond

In February 2015, James Herrod was arrested and charged with murdering a woman and leaving her on the side of the road in Selma. His bond was initially set at $1 million. In December 2016, Circuit Judge Marvin W. Wiggins denied a motion by Herrod’s attorney to reduce his bond to $50,000.

But three months later, Harris Huffman Jr., who was then sheriff of Dallas County, which includes Selma, requested Herrod’s release. Wiggins turned aside prosecutors’ objections and let Herrod go.

“The Dallas County Sheriff has to transport him to Montgomery twice or three times a week for Chemotherapy treatment,” Herrod’s attorney wrote in a February 2017 court filing.

“There will soon be a time when the Defendant will need to be hospitalized for one week at a time and there will be three or four of such stays in Montgomery,” the pleading said. “The Defendant needs to be home to have the support of his family and spend quality (sic) with his family.”

Huffman defended his decision to ask Wiggins to allow him to release Herrod in an interview with the Selma Times-Journal, saying that Herrod’s treatment had already cost the county over $200,000. Huffman, who did not respond to requests for comment, chose not to run for another term last year and his 24-year tenure as sheriff ended in January.

“My concern is he is extremely ill, and to be in a county jail and being that sick, it’s really hard to give him the medical attention that he needs,” Huffman told the newspaper. “It’s expensive, and it’s taxpayers’ money. … I think with him being this sick after several months it was time to do something else.”

Michael Jackson, district attorney for Alabama’s 4th Judicial Circuit, which comprises five counties in the center of the state including Dallas County, said that he’s long advocated for violent offenders to be kept behind bars.

“I understand that when somebody gets sick it can cost a lot of money, and these sheriffs don’t want to pay for that,” Jackson said. “But certain crimes like murder and rape, these people don’t need to be walking around.”

Herrod died on June 2, 2017, 10 days before his trial was slated to begin.

Martin Weinberg, a Birmingham lawyer with experience suing Alabama jails over medical issues, said some county jails in the state notoriously provide substandard in-house care and inadequate access to outside medical providers for sick inmates. Yet he and other experts said it is important to weigh those considerations against the potential societal risks of releasing inmates accused of violent crimes.

“We certainly don’t want to release violent offenders who wouldn’t otherwise be released because they have medical issues and we don’t want to pay for their care,” he said. “They get released and they can’t afford care and they get into more trouble and find their way right back into custody.”

Some sheriffs said they oppose releasing inmates accused of violent crimes for medical reasons.

“We’re just gonna bite the bullet,” Geneva County Sheriff Tony Helms said. “I’m not gonna go to the judge and say they need to be released. If it costs us, it costs us.”

Marshall County Sheriff Phil Sims agreed. “If they’re a threat to someone or if it’s a crime that’s a violent crime, they shouldn’t be released.”

“He’s Always Been Violent”

Gugaria has lived in fear of her brother for most of her life.

Sitting in the living room of her late father’s home deep in the woods of Bankston, a rural community west of Birmingham in Fayette County, Gugaria recounted stories of the “hell” of living through Tucker’s violence, drug abuse and rage.

“He’s always been violent, even when he was a little kid,” Gugaria said. “Something’s just wrong with him.”

Tucker as a child. (Lynsey Weatherspoon for ProPublica)

In 2013, Tucker was released early from a 15-year sentence for the manufacture of a controlled substance. In August of the following year, he punched Gugaria in the face. She was hospitalized for a day and has required multiple medical procedures over the past five years.

“I had a brain hemorrhage, my right shoulder was broken in two places, all the little bones in my nose were broken, my cheekbone was broken and my sinus cavity was crumpled,” she said. “I still have some paralysis in my face.”

Gugaria, who once worked as a secretary for the city of Tuscaloosa and loved to play poker, now collects a disability check as a result of her injuries.

Gugaria said she waited three weeks to file charges against her brother because she was afraid of him, and by that time, he had fled to Chicago. Local law enforcement obtained a warrant for Tucker’s arrest and went looking for him.

Sheriff’s deputies found Tucker in Fayette County and arrested him in December 2014. His bail was set at $25,000, but Tucker was released at the end of January 2015, on his own recognizance “due to documented medical reasons,” according to his release paperwork, which is part of his public court file.

The only officials who signed the bond were Ingle and his chief deputy. No judge, clerk or other officer of the court signed the document, which goes against standard procedure in Alabama.

Publicly available state court documents do not reveal what health issues Tucker may have had when he was released on medical bond in 2015. But in a 2016 federal lawsuit against Fayette County, Ingle and two sheriff’s office employees, Tucker alleged that when he was incarcerated in the spring of 2016 he experienced multiple serious medical problems and was not allowed to see a health care professional. The problems included a broken tooth, Hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver, as well as a medical emergency involving razor blades in his stomach. The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Birmingham, was dismissed for want of prosecution in November 2016, two months after it was filed.

Gugaria said that a person who knows Tucker well saw him the day of his release on Jan. 31, 2015, and spoke with Tucker about it.

“The sheriff came down there and let him sign his own bond in the ambulance,” Gugaria recalled the person who saw her brother that day telling her at the time. “And then he walked out of the ambulance. … I think they just didn’t want to have to pay his medical bill.”

Asked by a reporter about the release, Ingle replied: “You know, that’s been six years ago. I don’t even recall anything about that, I really don’t.”

Gugaria said she “was scared to death” when she found out that her brother had been released from the jail.

Tucker was indicted in August 2015 on a charge of second-degree domestic violence for the incident. In May 2016, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to one year in prison and five years of probation. The lawyer who represented him in the case did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In January 2015, Tucker, shown above in an undated photograph, was released from prison on medical bond. While out on bond, he committed additional crimes, for which he is now in federal prison. (Lynsey Weatherspoon for ProPublica)

In January 2016, while he was out on medical bond, Tucker committed additional crimes, according to court records. In January 2017, Tucker was indicted on three charges in federal court in Birmingham. He pleaded guilty to one count each of methamphetamine trafficking and possession of a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime and was sentenced to 17 ½ years in federal prison.

Gugaria says she stills lives in “fear for [her] life” though Tucker’s federal sentence is not scheduled to end until 2032.

Andy Hamlin, the current district attorney of Alabama’s 24th Judicial Circuit, which includes Fayette County, was the circuit’s chief assistant district attorney at the time of Tucker’s arrest and prosecution for hitting his sister. He said he recalled the case and reread the associated court records before he spoke with and ProPublica.

Tucker’s case, he said, “is the extreme anomaly.”

“We did not advocate for a medical bond,” Hamlin said of the DA’s office. “I’m opposed to violent offenders being on the street.”

Help Us Investigate

ProPublica and will be investigating the extraordinary power of Alabama sheriffs all year. Are you from Alabama? Do you have reason to believe we should be looking into your sheriff or sheriff’s office? Get in touch.

Connor Sheets is an investigative reporter at Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @ConnorASheets.

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