Fulton DA: Georgia AG wrong in handing back Brooks case

Case may end up back in AG’s hands
Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr (AJC file photo)

Credit: David Barnes/AJC

Credit: David Barnes/AJC

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr (AJC file photo)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis says her office is best suited to investigate whether former President Donald Trump attempted to overturn Georgia’s 2020 presidential election results, but should not be involved in a high-profile murder case against a fired Atlanta police officer.

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr’s decision on Tuesday rejected Willis’ request to disqualify her office from prosecuting Garrett Rolfe, who faces felony murder and other charges in the June 2020 shooting death of Rayshard Brooks. Willis also sought to have transferred a separate case involving six police officers facing multiple assault counts in an incident involving two college students.

“I’ve never heard of it in my 25 years as a prosecutor,” Willis said of Carr’s action. “It’s a very strange decision.”

Carr’s move contradicted advice given to her by his office in December, Willis said. His decision also seems at odds with his own description of how the disqualification process is supposed to work.

“It’s just an administrative job,” Carr said in an interview last May with the AJC. “We dont get the case file, we don’t see evidence. We don’t do any of that – unless we take the case.”

This time, according to AG office spokesperson Katie Byrd, Willis’ request was “reviewed internally” by members of Carr’s team “who arrived at the conclusion laid out in the letter — that the Fulton DA’s request failed to meet the legal threshold to seek the appointment of another prosecutor.”

In a Jan. 25 letter to Carr, Willis said she believes the conduct of her predecessor, Paul Howard, created “sufficient question of the appropriateness of this office continuing to handle the investigation and possible prosecution of these cases.”

“Some DAs will tell us what the conflict is, at a very cursory level,” Carr said in the AJC interview. “Others will give us more detail. They don’t have to.”

Willis said members the DA’s office past and present have been questioned by GBI agents about the legality of subpoenas issued by Howard in the Brooks matter.

Rolfe shot Brooks twice after he fought with Rolfe and another officer, grabbed one of their Tasers and aimed it at Rolfe. Rolfe was swiftly fired and Howard announced charges within days. The other officer on the scene, Devin Brosnan, faces aggravated assault and other lesser charges.

Willis said a “cloud of conflict” surrounds her office. She indicated she would not oppose a motion from Rolfe’s attorneys to disqualify the Fulton DA, filed when Howard was still in office. If there were a court order disqualifying Willis, Carr would have no choice under Georgia law but to appoint a new prosecutor.

In his motion, defense attorney Noah Pines accused Howard of making “ethically inappropriate” statements, if not outright misstatements of fact, to the public about the case.

“I think I’ve made my feelings about that motion pretty clear,” said Willis, who told the AJC she believed Pines’ arguments were virtually unassailable. “And it would be incumbent on me to be truthful in court.”

Jeff Davis, the former executive director of the State Bar of Georgia and director of the state judicial watchdog agency, said conflict-of-interest decisions lie with the individual lawyer.

“As someone who’s dealt with lawyer and judicial ethics much of my career, I think the rules of professional conduct make it clear that it is the duty of the individual lawyer to determine whether a conflict of interest exists,” Davis said.

“Here the district attorney has to determine whether a conflict of interest prevents her from prosecuting this case,” said Davis, now with the Atlanta firm Wilson, Brock & Irby. “And I don’t believe there’s any legal authority for another lawyer – in this case the attorney general – to supplant his judgment for the independent judgment of a lawyer making this decision.”

Georgia’s appellate courts have previously dealt with this issue, he said. “They have said the primary responsibility for these decisions rests with the lawyer who has to prosecute the case.”

Carr should not be overriding that decision, Davis said.

Reporter Bill Rankin contributed to this article.