Fulton DA receives federal grant to expand conviction integrity unit

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

The unit formed last year by Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard to re-examine prior convictions has received a financial boost from the U.S. Department of Justice.

The DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance has granted Fulton’s Conviction Integrity Unit $500,000 to bolster staffing. Currently CIU Director Aimee Maxwell has one investigator working under her.

Maxwell said the unit has investigated 29 cases since it launched in January. Of those, 23 are ready to be reviewed by the district attorney, but, according to Maxwell, Howard thinks the final decisions on those cases should be made by incoming DA Fani Willis.

Willis, a former Fulton prosecutor who defeated her former boss in the Democratic primary and faces no Republican opposition, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an August interview that she plans a massive restructuring of the office. What that means for the Conviction Integrity Unit remains to be seen. Willis did not respond to a request for comment about the grant.

Maxwell said it will fund the hiring of a new assistant district attorney to work with the unit, along with an investigator who specializes in cases involving DNA.

When it was launched in August 2019, Howard said the unit was inspired in part by one of Georgia’s most sensational cases: The murder, more than a century ago, of Mary Phagan. Her boss, Jewish pencil factory superintendent Leo Frank, was sentenced to death in 1915 for raping and killing the 13-year-old Marietta girl despite scant evidence and a star witness who changed his story multiple times. Frank was killed by vigilantes after Georgia’s then-Gov. John Slaton commuted his sentence to life in prison.

But Maxwell said the unit is not a part of the investigation into the Frank case or that of Wayne Williams and the infamous Atlanta child murders. During his 1982 trial for the murder of two young men, prosecutors introduced evidence linking Williams to 10 of the child murders, though he was never charged in the children’s deaths. He’s currently serving two life sentences.

“Those cases are being prepared for review by outside attorneys who will then present their findings to the citizen review panel,” Maxwell said. The panel — made up by three Fulton prosecutors, one defense attorney, lawyers from the Georgia Innocence Project and the NAACP, a representative from the county’s faith community, and representative from a local law school — passes along cases they believe deserve further examination to Maxwell.

Most, she said, involve sentencing inequities. That’s what led her to the case of Darrell Hall, convicted in 1991 of possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute and sentenced to life in prison. His sentence was vacated in 2019 after the CIU intervened.

“A lie sentence for possessing a little bit of drugs would never happen today,” Maxwell said. Hall was carrying what amounted to two sugar packets of cocaine but, because he had two prior felony convictions, Georgia law mandated a life sentence.

Upon further investigation, Maxwell discovered Hall was the only state prisoner from Fulton serving a life sentence for a drug offense. Hall’s sentence was subsequently vacated and he’s now working at Tyler Perry Studios.

“It’s rewarding work because of the huge impact it can have on an individual’s lives,” Maxwell said.

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