Charges dropped for Augusta man who’d faced life despite weak evidence

Maurice Franklin. Contributed.
Maurice Franklin. Contributed.

Maurice Franklin was expected to be released from the Augusta jail on Tuesday night, all charges dropped. He’d been detained without bond nearly two years — the precise length of time Richmond County authorities knew their case was troublingly weak.

“This case,” Franklin’s attorney Robert T. Homlar said, “has shaken my faith in the criminal justice system and the legal process.”

Franklin, 28, a father of four, had been accused of taking part in a 2019 gang-related drive-by shooting in which no one was injured. At the time of the drive-by, Franklin’s cellphone data put him 20 minutes away, and detectives didn’t interview two alibi witnesses who corroborate the phone records, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found. Detectives helped the witness, who saw the men before they shot at her home, find suspects partly by looking through Facebook photos.

August District Attorney Jared Williams, a Democrat who defeated Republican Natalie Paine in November, said his office considered the case with an open mind.

“After a thorough investigation and review of the facts, we found that the listed victim made a number of conflicting statements which irreparably damaged our ability to prove the case,” Williams said, declining to discuss specifics of the case, which is still pending for some. “As a result, my office determined we no longer had a good faith basis to pursue the charges arising from her accusations.”

Franklin was one of 22 people charged in “Operation Blue Blitz,” a sprawling alleged Crips gang case where most defendants faced hundreds of years in prison. The case involves various assaults and thefts, but the only person injured in the alleged spree was one of the men charged.

Though state officials say they didn’t have an active hand in the case, the indictment was the type — as large and devastating as possible — pushed by Gov. Brian Kemp’s administration. Kemp campaigned heavily on a promise to eradicate what he called a gang crisis across Georgia, and has continued to push stronger legislation as criminal justice reform groups and civil rights advocates call the efforts draconian and unnecessary.

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Natalie Paine, who was DA when the case was indicted, has been one of the most enthusiastic prosecutors about getting tougher on gangs. Paine has said she can’t comment on the case because of ethical rules. She said in late 2020 that she wasn’t aware of any exculpatory evidence related to Franklin. She couldn’t be reached Tuesday.

Jorja Leap, a UCLA professor who serves as a gang expert consulting the National Institute of Justice, has said heavy-handed charging decisions like those made early on in this case haven’t been shown to drive down crime. She said they can also lead to further mistrust of police, particularly in communities of color. All 22 defendants charged in the Augusta case were people of color.

Most of the defendants have recently pleaded guilty to lesser charges, with many going home with time served and five years of probation. Because the case is still pending for a few defendants, authorities declined to comment on how the case ended up so drastically different from how it began.

For Franklin, it started in the days after a group of men opened fire into the home of Khadilah White in August 2019. When White saw the men, she and her children cowered and heard bullets busting windows.

White told responding deputies one of the shooters was her ex-boyfriend and that he was in the Crips. White said they’d been arguing over visitation with their children. The men who were arrested were identified because of their alleged connection with the ex or people he knows. But the charges remained the same when White said she was actually mistaken about her ex taking being one of the shooters.

Studies have long found deep flaws in relying on eyewitness identifications, particularly those made by people who were in a moment of stress, such as someone whose home is being shot up, said Lester Tate, former head of the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission.

“You’re talking about people who are scared and really just trying to get out of the way,” Tate said.

Defense attorneys representing other defendants also noted troubles with the case against Franklin, said Scott Connell, whose client pleaded guilty to reduced charges last week.

“I just don’t get the sense that (Franklin) was involved,” Connell said, describing his view on the drive-by as the “universal” one among those who’ve read the case file. “And I’ve never seen anything that makes me think that.”