Fulton district attorney: Prosecutors, GBI need more resources

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks during a press conference at the Fulton County Courthouse in downtown Atlanta on August 30, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)
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Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks during a press conference at the Fulton County Courthouse in downtown Atlanta on August 30, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis testified before a state Senate committee on Wednesday, explaining what she said she needs to help combat crime.

Willis said she wants legislators to assist prosecutors across Georgia by hiring state gang prosecutors and investigators, allocating money for technology, and giving the GBI more scientists so that evidence can be tested without long delays.

“If you don’t acknowledge a problem, you can’t fix it,” said the district attorney, a Democrat, to the state Senate Public Safety Committee. “I don’t like naysayers who say we’re in so much trouble we can’t do anything.”

Atlanta, like other major U.S. cities, has seen a rise in violent crime. Last year was a historically deadly one as authorities investigated 157 homicides, the most since 1996. Atlanta police have investigated 137 homicides so far this year, compared to the 121 homicide cases they had investigated at this point last year. An investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed that towns and cities across Georgia also are grappling with homicide spikes. Spalding County, for instance, saw nine killings in 2020, up from one the prior year.

Willis said gangs are tied to a significant amount of the violent crime. Because of this, she said DAs all over the state — including her — need more help in prosecuting gang cases. Georgia DAs also struggle to keep up-to-date technology needed for investigations because of funding, Willis said, noting that her office has been using trial versions of some software.

But much of Willis’ time during her testimony was focused on a longstanding issue: the GBI crime lab backlog.

Willis complained of extreme delays and said they contributed to crime. Willis said she was aware of cases in which suspects committed homicides and sexual assaults while awaiting testing that would’ve had them behind bars.

Willis said she has nearly 4,000 drug cases that need testing. Recently, she used a private lab, as other DAs sometimes choose to do, to expedite testing in some homicide cases.

“The GBI has wonderful scientists,” Willis said. “It is a wonderful organization. But they need resources. They need enough scientists to deal with my DNA kits.”

Police and prosecutors around Georgia rely on the GBI’s labs for analysis of drugs, firearms, DNA, fingerprints, toxicology and trace evidence. The backlog, which is always fluctuating, became a more persistent issue largely because of the opioid epidemic and the GBI’s decision to investigate more officer-involved shootings in recent years. The lab also has tested thousands of rape kits after more than 1,300 were found untested and in storage in 2015 at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital.

As of Wednesday, the GBI had 33,000 cases awaiting testing. In 2019, prior to the pandemic, it was 36,000.

State Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, who has fought for legislation to prevent untested rape kit backlogs, said he remains supportive of efforts to address the issues.

“The GBI has been working to reduce the backlog, but it is still sizable for certain categories of evidence,” Holcomb said Wednesday. “The length of time that it takes to examine evidence impacts law enforcement’s ability to identify, apprehend, and prosecute suspects.”

Like Willis, Holcomb said the backlog is affecting crime, though he said the pandemic is also a driver, as are court and prosecution delays.

The GBI declined to comment on Willis’ statements.

Committee member Valencia Seay, D-Riverdale, asked Willis about efforts to prevent young people from joining gangs. “What are we doing — or are we doing anything — to help those kids who are in that position to join gangs?”

Willis said she believed services needed to be increased in the juvenile justice system, and that the juvenile system’s judges don’t have enough tools to intervene and set young people on a better track.

Willis said Fulton County also has a problem of too few judges. The county has 15 Superior Court judges. Each of them would ideally have about 20 homicide cases to preside over, but Willis said the untenable reality is there are enough homicide cases, including ones that were paused because of court delays, for each judge to have 46 cases.