Fulton commissioners appropriate $5M to process murder suspects

Fulton County's district attorney Fani Willis speaks to members of press during a press conference on Tuesday, May 11, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

Fulton County's district attorney Fani Willis speaks to members of press during a press conference on Tuesday, May 11, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Fulton County’s District Attorney made it real simple for county commissioners Wednesday: Either appropriate millions of dollars to help her office process a couple hundred unindicted murder suspects, or watch some walk out of jail.

“It’s just math,” District Attorney Fani Willis told commissioners. “I need help. I’m here begging you for help. Dangerous people are going to get out. I don’t know how to make it more clear.”

Commissioners voted to give Willis an immediate $780,000 to hire 55 additional staff members — 15 lawyers, 15 senior investigators and 25 support staff. Those hires will cost taxpayers $5 million over the next year.

She told reporters after the meeting that this was the biggest day for her office since she started her tenure in January.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Willis said.

That’s an understatement. Fulton has 11,000 cases caught up in the county’s court backlog caused by COVID-19 shutdowns. Fulton’s backlog is worst in the state, which has 206,000 cases choking the system. County staff estimate it will cost $75 million to solve Fulton’s problem.

But the more immediate issue Wednesday was the 224 murder suspects who have not been indicted. Of those, 51 must be formally charged before Sept. 28 or they will be granted a bond.

Law requires Georgia courts to grant bond if the suspect hasn’t been indicted within 90 days of the arrest. The clock — stopped temporarily by the courts because of COVID-19 — is ticking again.

Willis told commissioners the stakes were high if they didn’t give her the money: “We don’t get to as many cases, we half do our job, we skip steps and we’re all in danger. I’m not supposed to say that, but that’s the truth.”

And it isn’t just murder suspects. The 90-day limit means rape and arson suspects, along with other people accused of violent crimes, could bond out of jail.

Willis had Mike Carlson, who is the head of her major crimes division, help plead her case to commissioners. Unlike Willis, Carlson is a Republican. Three of the seven Fulton commissioners belong to the GOP.

“It is clear that a lack of resources in our DA office has been a major (contributor) to crime,” he said.

Willis appeared before the board in July when she and the sheriff gave an impassioned plea for resources. And as she did in July, the DA said Wednesday she had been stymied trying to appear and ask the commissioners for money.

Commissioners Khadijah Abdur-Rahman and Marvin Arrington, Jr. both apologized for having to deal with that, saying Willis shouldn’t have to jump through hoops.

Commissioner Bob Ellis asked Willis multiple questions about how she plans to use the funds. Past DAs have also asked for money, he said, “and, quite honestly, didn’t do a damn thing” with it.

Ellis and Pitts were not recorded as having voted on the appropriation. The other five commissioners voted yes.

Willis said rising crime means the goal of finishing the backlog by 2023 is impossible.

“It is delusional if you think we’re going to get through all of these backlog cases by 2023,” she said.

And all of the problems are filtered through an over-crowded jail.

The pattern of “revolving door” offenders is a perennial issue in Atlanta. But now, Atlanta police are frustrated more than ever to arrest the same violent offenders repeatedly, Chief Rodney Bryant said Tuesday.

In some cases, the chief said APD’s fugitive squad spends weeks or months tracking down a suspect only to see them granted a relatively affordable bond and released within hours or days. Some of those suspects have lengthy criminal histories but are released from jail while facing aggravated assault charges or even murder, according to Bryant.

As if violent crime wasn’t serious enough on its own, the uptick is having massive ripples.

A group is pushing for Buckhead to become a city — a movement largely stemmed from residents’ concerns over crime, and frustration with the city for not taking stronger steps to address it.

A recent mayoral poll commissioned by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found 33% believe crime is the reason for the Buckhead cityhood movement.

Staff writer Shaddi Abusaid contributed to this story.

Credit: WSBTV Videos

Fulton DA's office say murder case shows factors driving Atlanta's crime crisis