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In Georgia, few options to hold prosecutors accountable

Glynn County District Attorney Jackie Johnson recused her office from the Ahmaud Arbery case days after the February killing. But the way she and Waycross District Attorney George Barnhill handled the case in its early days received criticism and became the subject of state and federal investigations. Ryon Horne/RHORNE@AJC.COM
Glynn County District Attorney Jackie Johnson recused her office from the Ahmaud Arbery case days after the February killing. But the way she and Waycross District Attorney George Barnhill handled the case in its early days received criticism and became the subject of state and federal investigations. Ryon Horne/RHORNE@AJC.COM

Georgia district attorneys have faced a series of scandals and controversies in recent years that have raised a fundamental question: Does anyone police the prosecutors in this state?

In January, a $300,000 settlement was announced in a sexual harassment lawsuit against longtime Paulding County District Attorney Dick Donovan.

Fulton County DA Paul Howard has faced a string of recent discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuits by employees who have worked for him, and he is currently the target of a GBI criminal investigation into his use of a nonprofit he heads to funnel city funds to supplement his salary.

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In May, Brunswick DA Jackie Johnson and Waycross DA George Barnhill were accused of mishandling the case involving the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery and distorting the recusal process that governs prosecutors when a conflict of interest exists in a case.

The wave of criticism and national attention that rained down in that case led to the introduction of legislation in June to bring a formal oversight process to the state’s 49 elected district attorneys.

“It’s important to have a check on misconduct,” said House Minority Leader Robert Trammell, D-Luthersville, one of several sponsors of the bill that would create a state administrative body to oversee and investigate misconduct by prosecutors.

Trammell said he hopes to renew a push for creation of a District Attorneys Oversight Commission when the legislature reconvenes in January. He said he envisions the body functioning similar to the state Judicial Qualifications Commission, which investigates complaints of misconduct by judges.

Some prosecutors are open to the idea of more oversight.

“There’s a group of us embarrassed by the actions of some of our colleagues,” said Gwinnett County DA Danny Porter. “I think DAs have to recognize we haven’t done a good job at policing our own conduct.”

Richard Hyde, a member of the state’s judicial watchdog agency, agreed.

“I think it’s time that we have a serious discussion in this state about regulating prosecutors as we do judges,” he said.

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard has faced a series of complaints discrimination and harassment complaints by employees who have worked for him.
Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard has faced a series of complaints discrimination and harassment complaints by employees who have worked for him.

In Georgia, the State Bar is responsible for investigating lawyer discipline and referring cases to the state Supreme Court for possible discipline. But cases brought before the court against wayward prosecutors are extremely rare.

“The fact is, there were very few complaints,” said Paula Frederick, the bar’s general counsel.

The state’s punishment for prosecutors who violate codes of conduct, such as withholding exculpatory evidence from the defense, is among the weakest in the country, said Clark D. Cunningham, a Georgia State University law school professor.

The maximum punishment is a public reprimand.

“The situation in Georgia in terms of monitoring and deterring prosecutorial misconduct is completely inadequate,” he said.