Cherokee DA defends plea deal, decision not to pursue hate crime

Wallace says survivors, families wanted ‘justice and closure’
District Attorney Shannon Wallace speaks during the plea hearing for spa shooter Robert Aaron Long in a Cherokee County court Tuesday.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

District Attorney Shannon Wallace speaks during the plea hearing for spa shooter Robert Aaron Long in a Cherokee County court Tuesday.

If the case against Robert Aaron Long had gone to trial in Cherokee County, District Attorney Shannon Wallace said Tuesday she planned to pursue the death penalty.

Additionally, prosecutors were prepared to argue that 22-year-old Long committed a hate crime when he targeted women in a March 16 shooting spree that killed eight people, including four in both Cherokee and Fulton counties. Of those victims, six were Asian women, but Wallace said investigators found no evidence of racial motivation.

Victims’ families and survivors did not want to endure the pain of a lengthy death-penalty trial and the appeals that would follow, Wallace said. Since the deadly shooting spree, Wallace and other prosecutors have been in constant contact with those families. Long entered a guilty plea Tuesday, honoring the wishes of those hit hardest by the crimes.

“They have been clear and united in their message: Justice and closure are needed now,” Wallace said Tuesday afternoon. “Today, justice was served and the defendant pled guilty to all of the charges in the indictment and was sentenced to four consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole. He was also sentenced to an additional 35 years to be served in confinement.

“Today, the families of those individuals who were viciously murdered and the victims who were shot and placed in fear, received justice,” Wallace said. “Today, these victims are left knowing that this defendant will spend the rest of his natural life behind bars. Today, our community will begin to heal from these unspeakable acts of violence.”

It is believed this would have been the first time Georgia’s hate crime law, which went into effect last summer, was applied. In May, the Anti-Defamation League said the spa shootings are a perfect example of why the law was written.

“There is a clear bias motivation in this case,” Allison Padilla-Goodman, vice president of ADL’s Southern division, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “While the shooter did claim that he doesn’t have any racial bias, the fact that he is stereotyping and targeting Asian woman is cause for investigating a hate crime.”

Prior to agreeing to the deal, Wallace said investigators in her office and with the FBI spent more than 475 hours, including at least 40 interviews, delving into Long’s background for evidence that his actions were racially motivated. The investigators concluded there was not enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Long targeted Asians, Wallace said. In an afternoon news conference, the district attorney said investigators were very aware of other violent acts targeting the Asian community at the time of the spa shootings.

Even if she had pursued hate crime charges at trial — and Long was convicted of those charges — he wouldn’t have received any additional punishment, Wallace said. However, prosecutors could have argued at trial that Long targeted women, she said.

“For all of these reasons, our office opted not to pursue this avenue, recognizing that these were acts of evil and violence against multiple ethnicities and genders,” Wallace said.

Many law experts have said that Georgia’s hate law crime is a strong one, and the spa shootings cases have been closely watched. An ADL attorney previously said applying the hate crime statute on top of other charges sends an important signal to the victims’ community.

For Wallace, swift justice was the priority for the case, concluded in just over four months.

Although the plea deal settles Long’s murder case in Cherokee, he has been charged with four additional murders in Fulton. There, District Attorney Fani Willis said she still plans to pursue both the death penalty and hate crime charges.

Wallace said Tuesday she could not comment on a case in another county that involves different victims. She also declined to answer questions regarding the case.

Still, Tuesday’s sentence was not strong enough and overlooked the racial undertones for some in the Asian community, including Michelle Kang, secretary-general with the Korean American Committee Against Asian Hate Crime.

“The plea deal was literally a slap in the face to the (Asian American Pacific Islander) community, and we do not believe justice was achieved at the Cherokee County courtroom,” she said. “We see there was an obvious racial discrimination against Asian victims’ families in the due process making a plea deal. Even though Wallace said her office ‘spoke at length with many of the victims’ families, they are in agreement with the plea and the state’s recommendations,’ we don’t believe Asian families among ‘many of them’ agreed upon the plea deal.”

Stephanie Cho, executive director for the civil rights group Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, said she wasn’t sure whether Long accepted responsibility since he did not express apologies in court. However, according to his attorney, Long was advised not to make statements to the victims’ families and survivors Tuesday because of the pending charges in Fulton.

“This person inflicted so much pain into the Asian American community, not just in Georgia but nationwide, and I don’t know if this is considered justice because his actions, his accountability and his words we haven’t heard,” Cho said. “I don’t know if he takes real accountability for what he’s done.”

— Staff writers Tamar Hallerman and Paradise Afshar contributed to this article.