Fulton grand jury disagreed with DA staff on jail review

Grand jurors at odds with DA Fani Willis’ office about the scope of their authority to review troubled county jail, report says.
Inside the District Attorney's office in Atlanta, individuals are observed within the Grand Jury room, even though the proceedings are not currently underway. However, it won't be long before the Department of Justice investigation and the Fulton County inquiry into interference during Georgia's 2020 elections conclude, leading to anticipated indictments against Trump and other individuals involved. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

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Inside the District Attorney's office in Atlanta, individuals are observed within the Grand Jury room, even though the proceedings are not currently underway. However, it won't be long before the Department of Justice investigation and the Fulton County inquiry into interference during Georgia's 2020 elections conclude, leading to anticipated indictments against Trump and other individuals involved. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

Georgia law tasks grand juries with providing annual oversight of county jails across the state. But a recent Fulton County grand jury report outlines resistance the panel of citizens faced when they started asking tough questions over the summer about poor conditions at the local jail.

The previously unreported 16-page report, obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, outlines a disagreement the grand jury had with Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’ office over the panel’s legal authority to subpoena jail records.

The resulting grand jury report, dated Aug. 31, 2023, suggests grand jurors were surprised and concerned about the challenges they faced to meet their duties under Georgia law. The report lists six recommendations to improve the process so future grand juries can more efficiently carry out their inspection and oversight duties.

“It is the hope of this Grand Jury that the process of issuing Grand Jury requested subpoenas for the purpose of inspections will be easier for future empaneled Grand Juries in Fulton County,” according to the report prepared by Panel B of the grand jury that met in July and August.

Grand jurors had sought the DA office’s assistance in preparing a subpoena for records at the jail, but Willis’ staff initially told the grand jury it didn’t have the authority to do so as part of its inspection mandate, the report, signed by 14 members of the grand jury, said.

It was only after the grand jury pushed ahead and drafted its own copy of a subpoena that the DA’s office stepped in to help edit the request.

Troubled by news stories about the Rice Street jail facility’s problems, the Panel B grand jury had sought to compel Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat to turn over records regarding the recent deaths of several inmates, according to an AJC interview with the grand jury’s foreman, Jonathan Razza. But their efforts met resistance within Willis’ office, which on multiple occasions told the jury it did not have the power to subpoena the sheriff as part of their jail inspection, according to the grand jury report and Razza’s interview.

Razza told the AJC that he and other jurors felt they were being “shut down at every turn” for trying to perform their civic oversight duty.

“People are dying and here was a chance to do something about it,” he said.

In a written statement, DA spokesperson Jeff DiSantis said Willis’ office has taken several measures to scrutinize the jail.

During Willis’ three years in office she has made sure grand juries inspect the jail annually, he said, adding that the DA has held jail staff and contractors who violate the law accountable, including indicting multiple jailers for murder of an inmate.

Willis’ office dedicated two senior prosecutors to assist the July-August grand jury in subpoenaing jail records, which the grand jury received and reviewed in preparing its report, he said.

“Any suggestion to the contrary by this particular grand juror is unfair to the grand jury as a whole and to the staff who spent significant time advising and assisting the grand jury in obtaining the records it was seeking,” DiSantis said.

DiSantis also said that a subsequent grand jury recently toured the jail.

Grand juries consist of citizens who are selected randomly with roughly two-dozen members serving on a jury. They work closely with their local district attorney who serves as legal advisor during the jury’s term, which in Fulton lasts for two months. The grand jury’s primary function is to consider criminal indictments presented by prosecutors. (Panel B heard 834 indictments, issuing true bill indictments in all but one of the cases.)

But Georgia law also provides grand juries the power to investigate functions of government and make recommendations through reports that are filed with the court clerk. As part of its report, the grand jury asked that its findings be sent out to a dozen local public officials, including the sheriff and several judges and county commissioners. One of those commissioners named in the report, Commissioner Bob Ellis, told the AJC he never received it. The other three commissioners mentioned in the report did not respond to a request for comment before deadline.

What the grand jury ultimately outlined in its findings is concerning.

The report showed that the jail had nearly 80 open staff positions and hundreds of locks, showers, toilets and lights were “non-compliant.” More than 600 cell doors are considered “malfunctioning.” The grand jury lists the total costs of the repairs at $13 million, based on sheriff’s department records.

In addition to recommendations for more funding to address staffing shortfalls and sanitation needs, the report proposed that the jail be put under court oversight. The jail is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.

“Accordingly, this Grand Jury recommends that the Jail enter into a court-approved and court supervised monitoring and compliance plan as part of any effort to resolve the federal investigation into these matters,” the report reads.

The grand jury’s report noted that its planned visit to the jail was cancelled twice because of complications of the DOJ investigation into the jail as well as the indictments of former President Trump and his allies, which were handled by Panel A during the same term.

Panel B never visited the jail, said Fulton Sheriff spokesperson Natalie Ammons, adding that was “because of the extraordinary circumstances articulated in their report.”

“As a result, their conclusions that the jail should be under federal monitorship should be given the appropriate amount of weight,” Ammons said.

‘Field Trip’

While many of the documents the grand jury received revealed challenges at the jail, its report notes the grand jury had originally intended to pursue a broader set of jail records.

Of particular interest to jurors was the death of Lashawn Thompson, Razza said. Thompson’s lifeless body was covered in bed bugs when it was discovered in the jail’s psychiatric wing in September 2022.

The grand jury report noted that when the panel asked if it could compel the sheriff to turn over records, the DA’s grand jury liaison said it could not. The report noted the liaison told the jurors they would take “just a field trip” to the jail after which they would be presented a report for them to sign — something Razza said did not sit well with him and other jurors who took their civic duty seriously.

“We didn’t expect to see anything in the jail they didn’t want us to see,” Razza said.

Later, the grand jury presented their own independently drafted subpoena to the DA’s office. A senior attorney in the DA’s office then suggested the grand jury would need to open an investigation, as opposed to an inspection, of the jail in order to subpoena the sheriff for records, the report said. Such an investigation would require an extension of the grand jury’s term, which grand jurors voted against.

Following the vote, the grand jury revised their subpoenas and ultimately executed them with the help of the DA’s office, which by that time was offering help with final edits to the subpoena, the report said. The grand jury received documents from the sheriff’s office after a week. The report noted that grand jurors recognized and appreciated the effort of “several members” of the DA’s office in a process that ultimately resulted in a subpoena issued.

Danny Porter, who previously served as Gwinnett County’s District Attorney for nearly 30 years, said the law is clear and the grand jury was within their rights to pursue subpoenas.

“It doesn’t matter if its a jail inspection or the finance department they have the power to issue subpoenas and the law is clear on that,” Porter said. “The DA is the legal advisor to the grand jury, but they weren’t correct in this.”

The report references a subsection of Georgia’s statute regarding grand juries which holds that grand juries “shall have the right to examine any papers, books, records, and accounts, to compel the attendance of witnesses, and to hear evidence.”

During the grand jury’s two-month term between July and August, there were six deaths of inmates who were in the jail or under Fulton’s custody, according to the sheriff’s office. Among the inmates who died was Samuel Lawrence, who had been held in custody for more than 200 days without being officially charged. So violent were the conditions in the jail that Lawrence filed a civil rights complaint in federal court days before he died, accusing guards and inmates alike of abuse.

The report recommended that future grand juries be aware of their power to subpoena, and Razza hopes that future grand juries build on the work they did.

“The grand jury is supposed to provide checks and balances with the DA’s office and should have autonomy and support in the decisions they make regarding inspections of county offices,” Razza said.

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