DeKalb DA withdraws from prosecution of training center arrests

Dekalb County D.A. Sherry Boston announced Friday that her office is withdrawing from the prosecution of arrests related to Atlanta’s controversial new public safety training center. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Dekalb County D.A. Sherry Boston announced Friday that her office is withdrawing from the prosecution of arrests related to Atlanta’s controversial new public safety training center. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Citing differences in “prosecutorial philosophy,” DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston announced Friday that she will withdraw her office from prosecuting cases relating to Atlanta’s controversial new public safety training center.

The DA’s office is one of several law enforcement agencies involved in the investigation and prosecution of protesters who have been charged with domestic terrorism, weighty charges that can lead to decades in prison.

Boston did not elaborate in a press release on what differences the agencies have had. But in recent weeks, politicians, civil rights groups and attorneys have questioned the use of domestic terrorism charges against activists protesting the facility’s construction.

The district attorney declined an interview request Friday. Her office said it could not comment on the specifics, or on any of the charges because the cases remain open.

But Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Michael Register talked about one disagreement between Boston and the attorney general during a Board of Public Safety meeting in April. According to minutes from the meeting, Register said Boston wanted to drop the charges against an attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center who was among those arrested the prior month. Carr did not, Register said.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has said the attorney, Thomas Webb Jurgens, was a victim of “heavy-handed law enforcement intervention against protestors.” He was not protesting but instead documenting potential violations of protestors’ rights and acting as an observer, SPLC President and CEO Margaret Huang said previously.

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr has personally defended the charges, and Boston said Carr’s office will handle the prosecution of the pending cases going forward. State law allows for both state and local prosecutors to pursue indictments in certain offenses, including domestic terrorism.

“My team and I have worked diligently to reach a consensus with the Attorney General’s Office on charging decisions in these cases,” Boston said in a statement. “At this point, I have decided it is best that we allow them to move forward with the charges they feel are warranted.”

Carr said Friday that his office was “fully committed” to prosecuting the pending cases: “We will not waver when it comes to keeping Georgians safe and putting a stop to violent crime in our state.” The GBI released a statement Friday saying it will continue to work closely with the AG’s office “as we prepare the case for prosecution.”

Any future arrests relating to the training center will still be handled by the DA’s office as usual, Boston’s office said.

In all, 42 people have been charged over the course of several months of protests over the training center site, located on 380 acres of Atlanta-owned land in unincorporated DeKalb County. Most of the arrests happened in March, when nearly two dozen people were charged following a violent protest at the site.

During that protest, Atlanta police said demonstrators threw large rocks, bricks, Molotov cocktails and fireworks at officers. Several pieces of construction equipment were set on fire.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigations has charged those protestors and others with domestic terrorism. Arrest warrants for protestors have cited their affiliations with the Defend the Atlanta Forest group as a basis for the charge, which carries potential prison terms of five to 35 years.

The arrest warrants say the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has designated the groups as “domestic violent extremists.”

But Homeland Security officials said this month the agency has no such classification. And the FBI, which tracks domestic terrorism threats nationwide, said in a statement to the AJC that it cautions against using group affiliations to condemn individual behavior.

“It’s also important to note that membership in groups that espouse domestic extremist ideology is not illegal in and of itself,” the FBI statement said. “Membership in a group alone is not sufficient basis for a domestic terrorism investigation.”

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