A former Gainesville insurance agent convicted on drug charges in Forsyth and Lumpkin counties has been sent back to prison to finish his sentence.
Forsyth County Superior Court Chief Judge Jeffrey S. Bagley ruled Wednesday that Charles Steven Stringer, 47, was released in 2008 on the Lumpkin County sentence, but not on the prison time he was supposed serve for the Forsyth County case.
The decision came after a two-hour hearing during which Bagley heard from attorneys on both sides of the unusual case, as well as several witnesses.
While they were not able to determine why Stringer's 12-year sentence in Forsyth was not recorded at the state level, Bagley ruled it must be served.
The issue of influential people, including a Lumpkin County judge and several state lawmakers, contacting Bagley or Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens to put in a good word for Stringer did not surface during the hearing. None of those parties were present.
Stringer's case began when he was arrested with nearly 2 ounces of methamphetamine after a Jan. 5, 2005, traffic stop on Ga. 400 near Pilgrim Mill Road.
In June 2006, a Forsyth County jury convicted Stringer for possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony.
Bagley sentenced him to serve 12 years in prison and eight on probation and ordered him to pay a $200,000 fine.
Three days later, Stringer pleaded guilty in Lumpkin County to possession with the intent to distribute methamphetamine and was sentenced to serve three years in prison.
Stringer was released June 30, 2008, state prison records show.
He was arrested Feb. 16 and booked on the previous Forsyth County charges, a jail spokeswoman said. Per court order, he was released March 2.
After Wednesday's hearing, Stringer's attorney, Rafe Banks, noted no one testified his client had been improperly released.
"Even if he is improperly released, this court can't substitute for the department of corrections and the board of pardons and paroles," Banks said.
There is little chance of having Stringer released again, but Banks said he plans to file an appeal with the Georgia Supreme Court.
Earlier, witnesses from the Georgia Department of Corrections testified that Stringer's parole certificate reflected the Lumpkin County sentence, but not the Forsyth County one.
Barbara Neville, the department's manager of offender administration, told the court she did not receive paperwork regarding Stringer's Forsyth County conviction until January.
She said she did receive documentation of his Lumpkin County conviction in September 2006.
Stringer's incarceration began in October 2006. While that information did note that his sentence was to run concurrent with a Forsyth County term, Neville said the department took no steps to determine the nature of the latter case.
She said the Forsyth County matter could've been a misdemeanor, which the department would not necessarily have handled.
"We don't receive misdemeanor cases unless they're tied to a felony," Neville said.
She also testified the department would wait 30 days to receive paperwork from the clerk's office for information the department would need to be aware of, but would not likely investigate on its own what the Forsyth County sentence was about.
"We wait for the packet to come from the clerk's office ... because we can not follow up on everything," she said.
Neville said her staff determines whether someone is eligible for release and part of that includes running a report from the Georgia Crime and Information Center.
She said the inmate is let go if the report does not indicate any other convictions or red flags.
Noting that documents have to be destroyed within a certain period of time, she said she did not have the report on Stringer.
Melody Wood, chief probation officer of the Enota Judicial Circuit, said she initially supervised Stringer when his probation on the Lumpkin County case began in August 2009.
She said she was not aware of the Forsyth County conviction until December 2010, after he asked her to look into terminating his Lumpkin County probation case so he could get his insurance license back.
Wood said a GCIC report showed the Forsyth County conviction, making Stringer ineligible to have his probation terminated.
She said Stringer called her Jan. 18 to thank her, though she hadn't done anything for him. At that time, she told him about the Forsyth County information she found.
She testified Stringer hesitated before saying he'd thought that conviction had gone away and told her his lawyer had advised him the Forsyth County trial was "all for show."
Shiela Heard, a deputy clerk in the Forsyth County clerk of court's office, testified that Stringer's local sentence information was transmitted in 2006 to the GCIC.
Banks, who did not represent Stringer in 2006, questioned whether Wood or any other probation officer reviewed Stringer's sentence with him.
He also argued the prosecution was asking Bagley to "step into the shoes of the department of corrections and the board of pardons and paroles."
"I say you can't," Banks said. "I say the law says you can't."
Banks said his client did anything anybody else would have done in his situation.
"Don't blame Mr. Stringer, if you're in prison and somebody opens the door and says you're free to go ... everybody's going to walk out that door," he said.
Forsyth County Assistant District Attorney James Dunn countered that Stringer never said anything to anyone about his Forsyth County conviction and he must serve his sentence.
"For him to not serve that sentence is absurd," Dunn said. "It's not fair and it's not just ... they never paroled him on this case. They had no knowledge of this case."
He also attacked what Stringer allegedly told Wood his former lawyer had said about the trial.
"I know Mr. (Hammond) Law and there's no way he would ever tell his client that," Dunn said.
After the hearing, Banks and Law said they did not know if Stringer had paid the $200,000 fine.