Gwinnett DA: Election loss ‘didn’t have anything to do with me’

Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter makes his closing statement during the April 2019 death penatly trial of Tiffany Moss. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter makes his closing statement during the April 2019 death penatly trial of Tiffany Moss. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Longtime District Attorney Danny Porter knew his reelection chances were iffy given how Gwinnett County was decidedly turning from red to blue. But the Republican candidate didn’t expect to be thumped out of office with only 44% of the vote on Election Day.

Still, Porter said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he believes the outcome was not a referendum on his 28 years as Gwinnett DA.

“This had to do with being a Democrat or a Republican,” Porter, 65, said. “This didn’t have anything to do with me. If we were in a rational society where people still voted on merit, I’d still be district attorney.”

Porter will be succeeded by Democrat Patsy Austin-Gatson. She benefited from the blue wave that swept through Gwinnett, which President-elect Joe Biden carried with 58% of the vote. A supervising attorney in the county’s Solicitor’s Office, Austin-Gatson will become the first Black woman to be Gwinnett DA.

Austin-Gatson said she thought Porter lost because he’s arrogant and had stopped responding to voters, including not returning constituents' calls. “When someone’s in office that long, 28 years, they feel like the office belongs to them, not the people,” she said.

Incoming County Commission chair Nicole Love Hendrickson, the first Black woman elected to that job, said shifts in the community led many voters to pick Austin-Gatson.

“(It) is more of a reflection of a change in demographics,” she said. “They want someone who will prioritize social justice issues.”

Nicole Love Hendrickson, at the time a candidate for the top job on the Gwinnett County Commission, speaks at a Democratic "Get Out The Early Vote" event at Shorty Howell Park in Duluth, Georgia, on October 24, 2020. She won the election to become commission chair. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Nicole Love Hendrickson, at the time a candidate for the top job on the Gwinnett County Commission, speaks at a Democratic "Get Out The Early Vote" event at Shorty Howell Park in Duluth, Georgia, on October 24, 2020. She won the election to become commission chair. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright

Credit: Rebecca Wright

Porter pushed back on criticism he has been unresponsive to the community. “There is no one who has sought help from me that I didn’t answer to call,” he said.

As for the election, Porter said he thinks the antipathy toward President Donald Trump made many Gwinnett residents vote for Democrats no matter who was on the Republican ticket.

In an ironic twist, Porter never voted for Trump. When he saw Trump imitate a disabled New York Times reporter in a mocking manner during a 2015 rally, Porter decided he could never vote for him.

“My decision was based on his character,” said Porter, not one to mince words. “I have a personal aversion to the way he behaves.”

When he exits, Porter will leave a legacy of obtaining numerous high-profile convictions, being a strong advocate for the death penalty, overseeing an innovative office and being a formidable trial lawyer.

“I can’t think of a more honest and direct person I’ve ever known,” Gwinnett Superior Court Judge Warren Davis said. “What you see is what you get.”

Lawrenceville attorney David Lipscomb said it’s notable that Porter’s office was scandal-free for the entire time he headed it.

“There have been a lot of DAs who took the wrong path,” Lipscomb said. “Danny is not one of them. His primary focus was to protect the public and he did a fine job of that.”

There’s universal agreement as to what Porter can do inside a courtroom, Lipscomb added. “He’s one kick-ass trial lawyer.”

Said Davis, “It’s like watching a chess master. He was usually three or four moves ahead of the defense. His presence filled up the courtroom. Danny really could have been on Broadway.”

Porter, at 5-foot-8, is hardly an imposing figure. And his distinctive, gravelly voice sometimes makes him sound like he’s trying to talk like a pirate. But there’s no denying he commands attention in court.

“I wasn’t born with the tools,” he said of his courtroom skills. “I’m a student. And if I see somebody doing something good, I’m perfectly happy to appropriate it.”

Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter speaks with potential jurors during jury selection at a murder trial in 2019. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter speaks with potential jurors during jury selection at a murder trial in 2019. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Because he knows jurors can have a hard time understanding his guttural growl, he speaks slowly. And if he’s facing off against a much taller defense attorney, he makes it a point not to stand anywhere near that lawyer.

“I know what my physical limitations are,” he said. “So I’m really careful on how I present my cases.”

Porter has also been one of the few prosecutors heading a large DA’s office to actually try cases.

“Truth be known, that’s the best part of the job,” he said. “I don’t understand DAs who want to just be an administrator. To me, that’s the worst part of the job.”

Porter said his DA’s office oversees more wire taps than any other in the state. And he has a forensic computer lab with technicians sifting through data on cellphones and computers.

“We have a technical edge that’s second to none,” he said.

Early on, Porter became determined to always remember crime victims and their families.

Every year shortly before the Christmas season, Porter’s office hosts candlelight vigils for the relatives of homicide victims. About 10 people convened in a room in the DA’s office when the first vigil was held 17 years ago. The numbers steadily increased over the years, expanding first into a hallway and later into an auditorium.

Last December, an estimated 500 victims’ relatives met at the Free Chapel in Suwanee for the vigil. As always, Porter was there to address the crowd.

“We are here for the victims and their families,” Porter said. “No one else represents them.”

Kay McConnell, whose 24-year-old daughter, Krissy, was a vehicular homicide victim in 2017, hopes the vigils will continue after Porter leaves office.

“They have meant so much to me,” she said. “It shows how much he and his office care about us.”

McConnell is upset with the election. “If Gwinnett voters really knew Danny Porter, they would have reelected him,” she said.

Atlanta criminal defense attorney Bruce Harvey said the outgoing DA always seemed to have an open mind.

Defense attorney Bruce Harvey giving closing arguments during the Tex McIver murder trial at the Fulton County Courthouse in 2018. (Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com)
Defense attorney Bruce Harvey giving closing arguments during the Tex McIver murder trial at the Fulton County Courthouse in 2018. (Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com)

“I always thought in my dealings with him he was an intelligent, rational, principled prosecutor,” Harvey said. “He recognized the value of a case, when one should be tried and when one should be resolved in the interest of all parties. I’ve always had the utmost respect for his trial abilities and his willingness to come to a reasonable solution.”

Penny Poole, head of the Gwinnett NAACP, said Porter’s initial public statements that he was considering running as a Democrat also may have contributed to his undoing.

“For him to think that or say that, that’s desperation,” Poole said. “His base turned on him with the thought he would do that.”

Penny Poole, president of the Gwinnett NAACP, addressing the Gwinnett Board of Commissioners in 2018. JENNA EASON / JENNA.EASON@COXINC.COM
Penny Poole, president of the Gwinnett NAACP, addressing the Gwinnett Board of Commissioners in 2018. JENNA EASON / JENNA.EASON@COXINC.COM

Porter said he decided against it because he likely would have lost in the Democratic primary if he’d changed tickets.

“I came in as a Republican,” he said. “I’ve always been pretty pragmatic.”

Looking ahead, Porter may consider teaching criminology classes at a local college. He said he could also look into serving as a special prosecutor for the state Prosecuting Attorneys Council or the attorney general’s office. And he has long thought about trying to help solve cold cases.

“It’s not about the money,” he said. “I’m just not finished yet.”

As DA, Porter said he always tried to administer justice.

“That’s what I’ve always aimed for, and running a good, efficient office, an office that does its work, is doing justice,” Porter said.

“It was never about me,” he said. “It was about the job. It was about the people, the people of Gwinnett County we represent, the crime victims and the potential crime victims.”

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