Weak on evidence, Augusta case tests fairness of Ga.’s tough gang laws

Is innocent man caught up in huge Ga. gang case?

Prosecutor’s discretion becomes Maurice Franklin’s nightmare. ‘No one cares,’ says defendant jailed 16 months.

AUGUSTA — Before the bullets flew, before authorities built their case and before Maurice Franklin was arrested, Brian Kemp ran for governor in 2018, condemning gangs for terrorizing Georgia neighborhoods.

The Republican pledged to “empower our officials to crush gangs in the court of law.” And when he won, state law enforcement started helping local detectives and prosecutors make tough cases. Kemp and his allies pushed for harsher legislation and urged police and prosecutors to send more gang members to prison, for a lot longer.

Franklin’s arrest and what he faces in court are consequences of the crusade.

The 28-year-old father of four with no felony record or prior accusations of violence has been held without bond since September 2019 in a drive-by shooting of an Augusta house that injured no one. He was arrested after the victim, the state’s star witness, believed she recognized him from a Facebook page. Authorities allege the shooting was gang-related, so the number of charges — and the potential punishment — ballooned. Franklin faces 51 counts and up to 760 years in prison if convicted.

Twenty-one other alleged gang members face similar charges in the case, one of Georgia’s harshest gang prosecutions in recent memory.

Maurice Franklin, a restaurant worker and aspiring musician, was arrested in September 2019 for an alleged gang-related drive-by shooting. Franklin denies that he belongs to a gang or that he had any involvement in the shooting.
Maurice Franklin, a restaurant worker and aspiring musician, was arrested in September 2019 for an alleged gang-related drive-by shooting. Franklin denies that he belongs to a gang or that he had any involvement in the shooting.

Franklin, a restaurant worker and aspiring musician, denies that he is a gang member or had anything to do with the drive-by shooting. And he could be locked away for life despite serious questions about the evidence against him, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of his case.

At the time of the drive-by, Franklin’s cellphone data put him at least 20 minutes away from the scene. Detectives didn’t interview two alibi witnesses who corroborate the phone records. And the state’s key eyewitness, the traumatized victim, changed her story significantly after the arrests.

Initially, the victim said her ex-boyfriend was one of the shooters. She looked at social media photos of people she believed were connected to him and identified Franklin as another gunman. Later, she said her ex actually wasn’t involved, removing the alleged link to Franklin.

The AJC shared details of the case with a tenured prosecutor, a veteran civil rights attorney and a professor who’s spent her career studying gang cases. They said the evidence against Franklin was so weak prosecutors should have long ago dropped his charges or, at the very least, re-examined the case.

“It seems like no one cares,” Franklin said in a letter to The AJC. “All I want is justice because my family is suffering.”

Natalie Paine, the Augusta DA whose office made the case, didn’t respond to requests for comment about the decisions made in the prosecution. As for the evidence related to Franklin, she said she was barred by ethics rules from speaking about a pending case.

“If you would like to provide the (exculpatory) information,” Paine said in an email, “I would very much like to have it as nothing has been provided to my office along these lines.”

While Paine said she was unaware of it, sheriff’s investigators who built the case with the DA’s office have known about the cellphone data and alibi witnesses for 16 months, according to the case file. They’ve also known for months that the eyewitness, whose statement against Franklin appears to be the only evidence against him, changed her story, according to Franklin’s attorney Robert Homlar.

Franklin’s trial had been scheduled for Jan. 3, but Paine’s office told the judge it wouldn’t be ready. And Paine, who had won Kemp’s endorsement for a second term, was not re-elected.

The office of Natalie Paine, the former Augusta district attorney, brought the indictments against Maurice Franklin and 21 other alleged gang members in an August 2019 drive-by shooting that injured no one.
The office of Natalie Paine, the former Augusta district attorney, brought the indictments against Maurice Franklin and 21 other alleged gang members in an August 2019 drive-by shooting that injured no one.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Jared Williams, a Democrat and former prosecutor under Paine’s predecessor, defeated her in the Nov. 3 election, a victory that Williams attributes in part to the community’s dissatisfaction with over-zealous gang prosecutions.

“Nobody told me, ‘We want you to let gangbangers go free,” Williams said in an interview. “What they said was, ‘We want to make sure the process is fair and they’re only charged with what they did and convicted for what they did.’”

Williams declined to comment on Franklin’s case or say if he’d review it.

GBI Director Vic Reynolds, whose agency was not directly involved in the Augusta case, said he’s aware that the anti-gang tactics encouraged by his agency and others have come under criticism.

He said he was open to an independent review to determine what enforcement methods were best suited to Georgia.

“All I want to do is do it in the right way,” Reynolds said of gang prosecutions.

The victim’s detective work

One afternoon in late August 2019, a young mother of four heard car doors shut in front of her small brick home. She peeked out her front window and saw several armed men approaching. Khadilah White ordered her children to the back of the house. She fled to the kitchen and dropped to the floor, she told investigators.

The men opened fire, bullets breaking the front windows.

White told responding deputies one of the shooters was her ex-boyfriend and that he was in the Crips, a gang that originated in southern California. White said they’d been arguing over visitation. White said she recognized some of the other men but didn’t know their names.

White did some sleuthing. On Facebook, she checked the pages of people who were connected to her ex, according to the sheriff’s office investigative file. After looking at Franklin’s page, she told an investigator Franklin was involved in the drive-by.

Soon the sheriff’s office put out a news release saying Franklin was wanted.

Franklin and 21 alleged members of a Crips set were indicted Dec. 17, 2019. Most of the defendants face enough charges to imprison them for life multiple times over. Franklin and six co-defendants were accused of being present at the drive-by; the others were accused of being part of the gang’s conspiracy and other crimes.

Thanks largely to that one indictment, the Augusta District Attorney’s Office filed more gang charges than all of metro Atlanta’s DAs did in 2019 — combined.

Authorities in Augusta arrested 22 men in connection with a 2019 drive-by shooting they allege was gang related, including Maurice Franklin.
Authorities in Augusta arrested 22 men in connection with a 2019 drive-by shooting they allege was gang related, including Maurice Franklin.

Credit: Ryon Horne

Credit: Ryon Horne

‘A badass statute’

The new era of gang prosecutions in Georgia had begun with Kemp’s inauguration nine months before the drive-by shooting. Many prosecutors spent that time learning to file what they called comprehensive indictments, a cornerstone of the Kemp administration’s approach.

Under this method, prosecutors charge alleged gang members with as many violations of the state’s anti-gang law as possible. Each count carries five to 15 years in prison.

A comprehensive indictment may also include racketeering charges, punishable by up to 20 years. Prosecutors use racketeering to charge co-defendants with crimes committed on behalf of a criminal organization such as a gang. Like his co-defendants, Franklin faces racketeering charges based partly on crimes, such as robbery and fraud, allegedly committed by others in his purported gang.

Metro Atlanta DAs, for their part, tend to focus on cracking gangs from the top down, aggressively prosecuting leaders. Many metro gang members still get life without parole in violent cases, but generally they would face a few, not numerous, gang charges.

Former Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter, who helped write Georgia's gang laws, says they should be used aggressively against gang members but should not be overused. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Former Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter, who helped write Georgia's gang laws, says they should be used aggressively against gang members but should not be overused. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Former Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter, a Republican who helped write the state’s anti-gang law years ago, said filing a flurry of charges is often a tactic to nudge defendants to plead guilty, but it can also lead people to plead to things they didn’t do to avoid a devastatingly long sentence. “They need to get out from under it, so they work on a deal,” Porter said.

If Franklin’s case didn’t involve gang-related charges, he could’ve faced 14 counts worth up to 190 years in prison, instead of the 760 years he now faces.

Heavy-handed charging decisions like that haven’t been shown to drive down crime, said Jorja Leap, a UCLA professor who serves as a gang expert consulting the National Institute of Justice. She said these cases can also lead to further mistrust of police, particularly in communities of color. All 22 defendants in the Augusta case are men of color.

“I think this is a tragic case of prosecutorial overreach,” Leap said.

GBI Assistant Director John Melvin, a vocal proponent of the comprehensive approach, said he didn’t know the details of the Augusta case and couldn’t comment on it. But he argues that focusing on gang leaders isn’t effective enough.

“The way we’ve been doing it for 30 years isn’t working,” he said. “I’ve seen aggressive approaches work, I’ve seen it shut down entire gangs, I’ve seen it reduce the overall violent crime.”

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In Cobb County where Melvin was an assistant DA, authorities saw 494 incidents of gang activity in 2016, he said. That year the DA’s office obtained two comprehensive indictments, sweeping up 67 alleged gang members.

In 2017, gang incidents fell to 231 and rose modestly to 260 in 2018, Melvin said.

He disputed the notion that comprehensive indictments are intended partly to muscle plea deals from defendants. He also said the intent isn’t always to lock them up forever. Every case is different, and that means each prosecutor must simply do their best to see justice, he said.

Porter, who mentored Melvin as a young prosecutor, said he’s skeptical of the comprehensive approach, and he wouldn’t have adopted it in his office.

Porter said the gang statute should be used, not overused. He said he’s sat with defendants pleading for him to drop a single gang charge. That’s because they know the conviction marks you in the system, destroys your chances of parole.

“It’s a badass statute and it was designed to be,” he said.

Franklin’s alibi

The Samsung Galaxy ought to have been Franklin’s best friend. The GPS data it held corroborated his story of where he went on the day of the shooting. He said he went around town a bit and ended up at the Enclave at Augusta apartments, where he spent the entire afternoon and night.

Maurice Franklin says he was at the Enclave at Augusta apartments, a 20 minute drive from the crime scene, at the time of the drive-by shooting he's accused of committing. (RYON HORNE/RYON.HORNE@AJC.COM)
Maurice Franklin says he was at the Enclave at Augusta apartments, a 20 minute drive from the crime scene, at the time of the drive-by shooting he's accused of committing. (RYON HORNE/RYON.HORNE@AJC.COM)

He said he was there with two friends, Brittany Bennett and Derek Hightower.

Bennett told The AJC she and Franklin lounged around until the early evening. “Just watching TV and listening to music,” she said. She said she remembers this because she was asked about it in the days after the shooting, and she had text messages and photos showing Franklin was there, but she has since lost the phone. Bennett said authorities never reached out to ask if Franklin had been with her.

Bennett confirmed Franklin’s whereabouts to a reporter even though she had a reason to hesitate: Franklin is married. Bennett was the other woman, as Franklin had mentioned to detectives when giving them her name.

Hightower said the two men smoked marijuana together.

“We were smoking, chilling,” Hightower said, recalling showing Franklin some videos he’d filmed. “I’m positive.”

Five minutes after the shooting, someone used Franklin’s Samsung. The sheriff’s office records indicate the phone appeared to still be at the apartments, at least a 20-minute drive from the crime scene. The phone was connected to WiFi, suggesting the phone wasn’t moving.

Because the phone contained no information to say it moved from the apartments until 11:56 p.m., the technician who processed it for investigators advised the lead detective to look for other evidence to establish where Franklin was.

Maurice Franklin showing a hand sign in a Facebook photo. Authorities have accused him of flashing gang signs in the photos on his page, but Franklin says he isn't a gang member and was only representing the neighborhood he's from in Los Angeles, where gangs are embedded in the culture as much as music or fashion.
Maurice Franklin showing a hand sign in a Facebook photo. Authorities have accused him of flashing gang signs in the photos on his page, but Franklin says he isn't a gang member and was only representing the neighborhood he's from in Los Angeles, where gangs are embedded in the culture as much as music or fashion.

The Sheriff’s Office, which declined to comment on the details of the case, and the DA’s office have offered no explanation for failing to interview the alibi witnesses and no theory to explain the GPS data.

And they haven’t revealed what they make of the victim’s new story.

The first person White identified as one of the shooters was a man she had two children with, and it was his Facebook friends list where she went searching for suspects more than a year ago. Since then, she’s told investigators her ex was not involved in the shooting and she did not see him at her house, an account she repeated to the AJC.

“I thought I saw my babies’ father,” White said. “And actually I didn’t.”

That hasn’t changed the case for Franklin or any other defendant.

Maurice Franklin with wife Lanette Jones, stepson John, 9, far left, and daughter Imani, 6. Family photo
Maurice Franklin with wife Lanette Jones, stepson John, 9, far left, and daughter Imani, 6. Family photo

Stephen Bright, a Yale professor and former executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, reviewed case documents at The AJC’s request. He wondered if the authorities just weren’t “open to the possibility of his innocence.”

“This,” Bright said, “is the kind of tunnel vision on the part of law enforcement agencies and prosecutors that can result in wrongful convictions.”

What the victim says now

At her front door recently, White stood with an impatient little boy clinging to her hip.

White told a reporter she’s still traumatized by the shooting. She’s planning to move away because being in the house where bullets flew through the window weighs on her.

White said she told the police what she believed, and she hoped the system would sort things out fairly.

In saying she actually hadn’t seen her ex at the scene, she was throwing out the motive originally given to police for the shooting. He was supposedly angry with her about visitation with the kids. Now she offered a new theory.

“My fiancé had got into a fight with one of their friends,” she said, “and I assume they came back to avenge that.”

The reason she said she thought — and still thinks — Franklin was a shooter was that one of the two cars the men arrived in looked like the car Franklin shared with his wife Lanette Jones.

“I saw his vehicle. It was a white car,” White said.

She said she didn’t know what kind, but she described it as “old school.”

The Franklin family car was a 2018 white Toyota Camry.

Jones said she had the car on the day of the shooting, taking their daughter to gymnastics.

One day in November, she showed a reporter cell phone video taken at the class with 6-year-old Imani tumbling on brightly colored mats.

Lanette Jones, wife of Maurice Franklin, plays a video she took with her phone to show that she took her daughter to gymnastics with the family car on the day of the drive-by shooting. A witness claimed the car was used in the shooting, across town. (RYON HORNE/RHORNE@AJC.COM)
Lanette Jones, wife of Maurice Franklin, plays a video she took with her phone to show that she took her daughter to gymnastics with the family car on the day of the drive-by shooting. A witness claimed the car was used in the shooting, across town. (RYON HORNE/RHORNE@AJC.COM)

Franklin waits

From his jail cell, Franklin has had a lot of time to think about the future, and the past.

Since his arrest, he’s lost his job, the family car and the family apartment.

To keep his eye on the future, his wife said, he’s focusing on self-improvement. Jones said they reconciled over his infidelity.

Franklin keeps writing, hoping to pen a song to launch his rap career. Maybe then the family could recover some of what they lost.

Yet there are some things Franklin can’t reclaim.

On Feb. 3, 2020, Franklin’s only son was born. From the jail, he listened to the birth off and on over a monitored line, his wife said.

When baby Isaac emerged, the father asked his wife what he looked like.

“Just like you,” said the mother.

Lanette Jones holds her son, who was born in February while her husband Maurice Franklin was behind bars in a gang case. (RYON HORNE/RHORNE@AJC.COM)
Lanette Jones holds her son, who was born in February while her husband Maurice Franklin was behind bars in a gang case. (RYON HORNE/RHORNE@AJC.COM)

How we got the story

AJC criminal justice reporter Joshua Sharpe, whose reporting helped lead to the release of a man serving life in a double murder he insists he didn’t commit, reviewed the records of Maurice Franklin’s case, and the indictments of the co-defendants. He interviewed witnesses, attorneys and experts in criminal gang prosecutions, along with Franklin’s family. Franklin corresponded with Sharpe from his jail cell in Augusta.

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