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Court to hear challenge to state's banishment policy

ATLANTA - Georgia's judges are forbidden from banishing criminals from the state, but some use a legal maneuver to get around the ban: Restricting the offenders from all but one of the state's 159 counties.

That often means confining selected offenders to remote counties in rural Georgia or hard-to-reach spots near the Okefenokee Swamp.

To some judges and prosecutors, the orders are ways to rid criminals from populous areas and protect victims from repeat offenses. But to others, they are thinly disguised efforts to skirt a Georgia constitutional provision that explicitly forbids courts from 'banishment beyond the limits of the state.'

The two sides will meet Monday in Georgia Supreme Court as justices hear the case of Gregory Mac Terry, who was banished from every county but one after pleading guilty to assault and stalking charges.

According to court records, Terry violated a restraining order by sneaking into his estranged wife's home, then forced her to get into his car when she returned. After driving down a dirt road, he pulled out a pair of scissors, held them to her chest and said he wanted to see if she still loved him.

She managed to calm him down and persuaded him to drive to a gas station, where she told a clerk to call 911. Terry fled, leading police on a high-speed chase, until he pulled into a police station parking lot and surrendered.

Terry was sentenced to 20 years in prison and 10 more years on probation - with the condition that he be banned from all Georgia's counties except Toombs County in southeast Georgia.

The banishment effectively blocked his release from prison in June 2001 when he was told he had a chance to be paroled if he completed a work release program. But he couldn't start the program because he was banned from living and working in Fulton County, a development that set his parole date back until June 2009, according to his lawsuit.

Prosecutors say the ban is reasonable because the victim would be in danger no matter how much time passed. They cite a letter Terry had written the victim that said he wouldn't forget her when he's released - 'even (if) it's after a hundred years.'

They also note how state law has long permitted banishment as a condition of probation. Although the practice is controversial - particularly in the 'receiving' county - judges have used it over the last few decades to rid themselves of scores of defendants deemed undesirable. DeKalb County alone has banished dozens of offenders to Echols County, which sits on the Florida border.

Terry's attorney, however, said the practice is an 'unconstitutional outrage' that's aimed at getting his client - who has no family or job in Toombs County - to flee the state.

'It's a throwback to the dark ages,' said McNeill Stokes, Terry's attorney. 'The whole point behind this is zealous prosecutors wanting to get rid of problems in their counties.'