The way he remembers it, the older man said all the right things to draw him in.
He first met him at a bank, where the man held the door for him and struck up a conversation. He asked his age, and the boy said 14. Undeterred, the man sent flattering messages on social media and asked him on a date. They went out for dinner, then back to the man’s townhome for a movie, then to his bedroom.
That account comes from a written statement provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution by the alleged victim in a now-dismissed child molestation case. “At that point, I was struggling and was very confused, but he seemed like a nice man,” he wrote in February. “I thought that I was lucky that this man was interested in me.”
Authorities in two North Georgia counties saw it differently, charging Derek J. Key, who was 29 at the time, with enticing and having oral sex with a minor, as well as sending sexually-explicit messages to another teenage boy through MySpace. But last week, with a judge’s signature, Key became the latest of defense attorney David Ralston’s clients to be cleared of criminal charges after years of case delays made possible by Ralston’s position as state Speaker of the House.
The case was among 21 examined by the AJC and Channel 2 Action News in an investigation that found Ralston may have misused privileges of his office to benefit his private law practice. Court records show he perpetually stalled cases for clients accused of such crimes as child abuse, rape, assault, terroristic threats and drunk driving, and for clients embroiled in lawsuits. Georgia law allows lawyers who serve in the state legislature to put off court appearances if they tell judges they have lawmaker duties to tend to.
The passage of time can weaken evidence against a defendant, and it appeared to work wonders for many of Ralston’s clients, the AJC and Channel 2 found. Key’s case was among the longest-delayed, lingering for a decade after the 2009 indictments as Ralston invoked legislative leave at least 41 times in two county courts.
“This is an incredible miscarriage of justice,” state Rep. Scot Turner, a Cherokee County Republican who has publicly called on Ralston to resign, said in an email. “It is more clear now than ever before that Speaker Ralston uses legislative leave to create delays other attorneys are not able to manufacture for the purpose of weakening the case against his client.”
Ralston has declined to be interviewed by AJC reporters covering this story, but he told WSB Radio and Channel 2 last month that one of the victims’ families had been asking the prosecutor to dismiss the case for four or five years. Ralston’s private attorney, James Balli, said the case had other shortcomings that had nothing to do with legislative delays, and those issues may have led to the dismissal.
“As you know, prosecutors do not like to lose,” Balli told the AJC by email.
Key has not returned several messages from the AJC, and judges and prosecutors who were involved over the years have either declined to comment or won’t respond, including current Gilmer County District Attorney B. Alison Sosebee.
After his 2009 indictment, Key was re-arrested in 2010 for violating terms of his bond when he was seen at a football game at a local middle school. He then got a new bond with the understanding that he would avoid areas where minors congregate.
But in 2012, a photo on the front page of an Ellijay newspaper showed him with his arms around five children at an orphanage in Haiti.
Nothing in court files shows any judge or prosecutor taking issue with the Christian mission trip. Ralston said through a spokesman that he first learned about it from the newspaper.
On his way home driving through Dominican Republic, Key, his father and another missionary were in a serious car crash, with Key injured the worst. The family called on Ralston for help getting out of the country.
“As he would do for any constituent, Speaker Ralston contacted the appropriate authorities to expedite Mr. Key’s departure,” a spokesman told the AJC in an email.
While the community rallied around his recovery, Key still was facing decades in prison for charges of aggravated child molestation, enticing a child for indecent purposes and electronically furnishing obscene material to a minor.
Prosecutors in Cherokee County, where the townhome was located, dropped the molestation charge in 2014. The motion to dismiss explained that the now-adult “victim” — using quotation marks to describe him as such — is openly gay and had stopped cooperating.
In Gilmer County, where both of the alleged victims lived, the DA’s office said last week that neither victim was on board anymore. The court filing — known as a nolle prosequi — said their phone numbers are no longer in service.
The AJC has been in contact with one of them for months, and he said he hasn’t heard from prosecutors since shortly after Key’s arrest. “Before I was notified by you, I genuinely thought that his case had been tried and closed,” he said in his written statement.
State Rep. Turner said the prosecutor’s effort to reach a witness from a decade-old case apparently amounted to dialing an old phone number. “It calls into question whether the DA was trying to prosecute this case at all,” he said in his email.
Taylor Brown, an attorney in the Atlanta office of Lambda Legal, said she sees other problems in how prosecutors treated the case. Both counties’ dismissal orders drip with victim blaming, she said, with the most recent one saying the oral sex was the teenager’s idea, even though minors can’t legally consent to sex with an adult. The orders also seem to admonish both alleged victims for never filling out victim impact statements, which isn’t required to prosecute.
Brown, whose firm advocates for LGBT justice, said she doubts the orders would have used such language had the alleged victims and perpetrator been opposite genders. “I think with gay men, specifically, there are still these stereotypes of being promiscuous, of being overly sexual, and basically unable to be a victim,” she said.
Whether gay or straight, witnesses lose interest when criminal cases drag out for years with no end in sight, Brown said.
“For this case to be delayed so long, it just seems that the prosecutor’s office, I think they also failed these children,” she said.
In an interview with the AJC earlier this year, Cherokee County District Attorney Shannon Wallace said she wasn’t familiar with details of the Key case, but it’s possible it would have been dismissed even without Ralston’s delays. She expressed regret at the way the motion was written.
Balli, who is both Ralston’s personal attorney and his appointee to the Judicial Qualifications Commission, said the prosecution of Key appears to have also fallen apart because the two victims allegedly had oral sex with each other while in high school, when one was 17 and the other was 15, according to the Cherokee dismissal. That was how police first got involved, but the older teen, though a legal adult, wasn’t charged.
“Speaker Ralston’s legislative leave before 2014 had nothing to do with the dismissal,” Balli said, “and after 2014 the case was effectively over.”
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