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Convicts release may have been a mistake
Hearing Wednesday will determine fate
0413RELEASECharles Steven Stringer
Charles Steven Stringer

Attorneys will argue this morning whether a former Gainesville insurance agent convicted on drug charges in Forsyth and Lumpkin counties should have to finish his sentence.

What also likely will be revealed at the hearing is how paperwork for Charles Steven Stringer's 12-year sentence in Forsyth never made it to the Georgia Department of Corrections.

In June 2006, a Forsyth County Superior Court jury found the then 42-year-old Stringer guilty of possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony.

Superior Court Chief Judge Jeffrey S. Bagley sentenced Stringer to 20 years, with 12 to serve in prison and the remainder on probation. He was also ordered to pay a fine of $200,000.

A short time later, Stringer pleaded guilty in Lumpkin County to possession with the intent to distribute methamphetamine and was sentenced to serve three years in prison.

State prison records show Stringer, now 47, was released June 30, 2008.

On Feb. 16, Stringer was arrested and booked on the previous charges at the Forsyth County Detention Center, a jail spokeswoman said. Per a court order, he was released on March 2.

Before releasing Stringer that day, court transcripts show Bagley announced that Lumpkin County Superior Court Judge Lynn Alderman had come to him the month before on Stringer's behalf.

Alderman, who was not the judge who handled Stringer's case in Lumpkin, provided Bagley with the man's sentences from both counties.

Bagley said Alderman told him Stringer served the Lumpkin County sentence, but not the one Bagley had issued.

"She also told me that Mr. Stringer was doing well in his community," Bagley said, adding that he couldn't remember the details but that Alderman spoke favorably of Stringer.

Transcripts show that Bagley said he told Alderman he'd look into the matter.

According to court transcripts, Bagley said he couldn't remember how their names came up, but Alderman also mentioned state Rep. Carl Rogers and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, both Republicans from Gainesville.

"I got the impression that they had spoken to her about Mr. Stringer," Bagley said.

He recalled that about a week after his conversation with Alderman, Rogers called him "and wanted to tell me what a good person (Stringer) was, and how well he was doing, and that ... he wanted me to give that some consideration in my decision about what to do with Charles Steven Stringer, and the situation he was facing."

The judge said he informed Rogers he would need to come to court if he wanted to talk on Stringer's behalf.

Bagley said Monday he is required by the Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct to disclose the private conversations.

"So I made all the disclosures about all the ex-parte communications that had been forced upon me," he said.

Bagley said if Stringer is sent back to prison, the time he has been out could count as credit toward his sentence.

He also said it is a rare occurrence for the Department of Corrections not to receive someone's sentencing information.

"I've been on the Superior Court bench since 2000 and I've sentenced thousands of people and I don't know of that ever happening," Bagley said.

In February, state Sens. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, and Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, reportedly visited Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens' office on Stringer's behalf.

A spokeswoman for Olens confirmed the meeting Monday.

She said the attorney general had told the lawmakers that Stringer should find a private attorney and it would be a conflict of interest for him to discuss the case.

Forsyth County District Attorney Penny Penn said she found Alderman's actions "appalling" and said the judge could have brought the matter to the attention of Stringer's Lumpkin County probation officer.

Penn added that the appropriate venue for resolution would be the courtroom.

"Anybody can come in there and speak on Stringer's behalf. That's the way it works," Penn said. "As a judge, she certainly knows that. I think that she was trying to put in a good word for him regardless of what she may have said about it and that's just inappropriate."

Like Bagley, Penn said the mishandling of the paperwork is unusual, as is the "full-court press" from prominent people who put in a good word for him.
"We'll see if any of these people who have tried to speak on his behalf show up (today)," Penn said. "I'm not holding my breath."

According to the court transcripts from March 2, one of Stringer's attorneys, Rafe Banks, argued that the prosecution should bring its complaint that Stringer hasn't served his sentence to the corrections department or the state board of pardons and paroles.

He said it sounded like prosecutors were saying Stringer was released too soon.

Banks held that once his client was taken into custody, he began serving his Forsyth County sentence. Several days later, Banks said, Stringer was taken to Lumpkin County, where he was given a concurrent sentence.

"I expect also to have testimony from the clerk's office here in Forsyth County that they forwarded all the appropriate paperwork to the department of corrections," Banks told the court. "He was in custody continuously, until released by the department of corrections."

Attempts to reach Banks for comment this week were not successful.

According to Forsyth County News accounts, Stringer was arrested with nearly 2 ounces of methamphetamine after a Jan. 5, 2005, traffic stop on Ga. 400 near Pilgrim Mill Road.

Stringer's family owns the Stringer Insurance Agency, which has offices in Gainesville and Dahlonega.