ATLANTA — The Western Judicial Circuit is a mess according to a series of open records 11Alive Investigates has obtained over the past three months. Some critics have even gone so far as to nickname it the Western Circuit Circus.
“I am writing this email to express my absolute disgust,” said Sergeant Scott Prah with the Athens-Clarke County Police Department, after the district attorney’s office decided not to prosecute rape and aggravated sodomy charges.
There’s a letter signed by all four Superior Court judges in the Western Judicial Circuit, urging DA Deborah Gonzalez to start actively participating in court hearings and observe their concerns with some staff.
In the letter, it states, “With so many cases waiting to be tried, it is imperative that the Court not be further delayed by the State’s lack of preparation and or failure to follow proper procedures.”
There are victims. In a blog posted by Allison Carron on SafeD Athens she writes about her son Knox Whiten, who died in a hit-and-run accident. She discusses her frustration with the constant turnover in the DA’s office. “…through the 18 months it took to finish our case, we had five assistant DAs and was on advocate number 4.” She later went on to say, “I honestly had no trust in the DA’s office to represent my family in a trial.”
Then, on Monday, attorney Kevin Epps filed an application for writ of mandamus, basically a civil lawsuit accusing Gonzalez of failing to do her job.
The writ accuses Gonzalez of hiring underqualified attorneys, leading to mistakes that have caused mistrials or forced judges to dismiss charges.
She’s accused of failing to prosecute certain kinds of crimes and not using the grand jury process properly to ensure cases get indicted and before the judges.
Epps has created a website so anyone can read the writ, emails, and court orders that make up his case.
“At some point, you hear so much about what’s going on in our community, in the prosecutor’s office that you have to say, ‘Well, it’s great that we’re all sitting here complaining about it, but what are we going to do?’” said Epps, explaining his motivation for getting involved.
Gonzalez admits things are not going the way they should. Her office is budgeted for 17 prosecutors. On the day we sat down to talk with her, she had five.
In her two years as DA, Gonzalez has struggled to keep attorneys. 11Alive Investigates has confirmed at least 35 prosecutors, who have left.
It has created a massive workload for those left behind.
“My caseload last time, pulling the list, culling the cases was 870 cases,” said Gonzalez. It’s a workload she adds, that is unsustainable.
Gonzalez explained that each court usually has two assistant district attorneys, or ADAs, that work the cases from preliminary hearings and plea agreements to trials. But right now, she only has the staff to assign one ADA to each judge, including herself.
The strain on staff is impacting cases. Just weeks before the murder trial of Quatravis Hull and David Richard was set to begin in February, Gonzalez filed a motion asking for more time.
She told the judge a key witness wasn’t available and she was waiting on GBI test results. But as the hearing went on, it was discovered Gonzalez had never actually subpoenaed the witness and the test results had indeed been delivered to her office.
“If it’s deception, it’s wrong. If it’s not being prepared, either one of them is unacceptable,” said Epps. “And it rose to the level that a judge said I’m going to put it in an order that the citizens of Athens Clarke County can read.”
Investigator Rebecca Lindstrom questioned Gonzalez about the case. As the lead prosecutor, Gonzalez admitted it was her responsibility to know the status of the witnesses and evidence.
“But again, when you have 870 cases,” she continued, “I rely on other people for information as well because obviously, I don’t have time to check every single thing.”
Gonzalez is an attorney but has no background in criminal law. Her plan was to focus on policy. Given her staffing challenges, she ended up prosecuting her first criminal case in January of this year.
What happens in Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties can impact the rest of the state. A jury in Athens found Willie Tremaine Evans not guilty of murder. Gonzalez did win a plea on unrelated charges but allowed him to plea to misdemeanors instead of the original felony charges. He was let out on time served.
Evans is now in jail accused of killing a Hall County teenager.
That’s why Athens resident and business owner Jarrod Miller says he filed the lawsuit. He voted for Deborah Gonzalez but worries her inexperience in criminal law is impacting the community.
“Athens was always seen as an oasis, a safe place. I’d like it to stay that way,” Miller said.
He hires UGA students and says parents send their kids to Athens assuming they’ll be safe. So, when prosecutors lost their case against the driver in the fatal hit and run of student Ariana Zarse, Miller couldn’t take it anymore.
“That left a gaping hole of justice,” he said.
While the lawsuit bears Miller’s name, Epps says the document represents every citizen concerned about what’s happening in the DA’s office.
“I’m looking at the evidence of how she indicts, how she dismisses, how she chooses to prosecute,” said Epps. "And it is not good.”
Gonzalez says her office has worked hard to respond and learn from any mistakes made. But argues some of the expectations are unrealistic, especially if the county won’t give her more money to offer attorneys a competitive salary. She insists attorneys keep leaving for higher-paying jobs in other parts of the state.
“We had a perfect storm. People left because they were offered more money. The ones who stayed were left with higher caseloads that led to stress,” explained Gonzalez. “This is what I’ve been bringing… I’ve brought it to the judges, I’ve brought it to our commissioners, I’ve brought it to the mayor over and over again.”
Athens-Clarke County has approved a salary study, but there’s no timeline yet on when it will be complete. Epps is convinced there is more to this problem than money.
In a statement on the Western Judicial Circuit DA's Facebook page, Gonzalez said the "attack" on her office is a part of a "politically-motivated campaign to undermine prosecutors who have been elected by their communities." The statement added that she's proud of the work her office does.
"My community elected me based on my promise to fight for a safer and more just future. I will always strive to be better in implementing new approaches, and I am proud of the work our office does every day, fighting for victims and a more just legal system," the statement reads in part. "I will continue to hold myself accountable to my community and resist efforts to strip them of the leadership they have duly elected to carry out this job."