Laken Riley case: What to know about the prosecutor tapped by Athens DA

Sheila Ross is a respected prosecutor with several major cases under her belt.
Sheila Ross in action as a Fulton County prosecutor in the Sparkle Rai murder case. (2008 file photo)

Credit: Joey Ivansco/AJC

Credit: Joey Ivansco/AJC

Sheila Ross in action as a Fulton County prosecutor in the Sparkle Rai murder case. (2008 file photo)

A veteran prosecutor with some of Georgia’s most high-profile murder trials under her belt will lead the case against the suspect charged in the death of nursing student Laken Hope Riley on the University of Georgia campus.

Sheila Ross, the director of capital litigation for the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, was tapped to handle the case against Jose Antonio Ibarra, who was arrested Friday and charged with Riley’s murder.

Athens-Clarke District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez said late Monday that she had requested assistance from Ross, a “knowledgeable and well-respected trial attorney with the expertise ready to bring justice on behalf of Laken Riley.”

Riley’s body was discovered by UGA police around 12:40 p.m. on Thursday at the university’s intramural fields, where she had gone for a run hours earlier. Police said Riley’s skull was disfigured and that she had been dragged into a secluded area.

Ibarra, 26, was charged with malice murder, felony murder, aggravated battery, aggravated assault, false imprisonment, kidnapping, hindering a 911 call and concealing the death of another. He remains in custody at the Athens-Clarke County jail and is represented by two public defenders.

Republicans have criticized Gonzalez’s handling of high-profile cases, her decision not to prosecute certain low-level drug offenses and a mass departure of staff attorneys on her watch. Gonzalez, a Democrat, was elected in 2020.

Legal professionals who have witnessed Ross in action say she’s one of the best prosecutors in Georgia, and her involvement in the Riley case is supported by state Rep. Houston Gaines, the Republican who represents Athens.

Ross has tackled some of Georgia’s most complex and memorable prosecutions, including the racially motivated murder of Sparkle Rai at the direction of Rai’s father-in-law. She also helped secure the conviction of millionaire James Sullivan in his wife’s murder.

Prominent defense attorney Donald Samuel fought against Ross in both the Rai and Sullivan cases, as well as many others, including the murder case involving former Baltimore Ravens football star Ray Lewis. Samuel said Tuesday that Ross, whom he’s known for more than 20 years, has become a friend despite them working on opposite sides of the courtroom.

“She is, in my opinion, without exaggeration, the most formidable prosecutor in Georgia (state or federal),” Samuel told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

In her role at the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council, Ross has assisted prosecutors throughout Georgia with complex murder and death penalty cases. She also has provided instruction to law enforcement and prosecutors on issues to do with murder, legal insanity, DNA, trial techniques and jury composition.

Ross previously served as the supervising attorney of the Major Case Division for the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office in Atlanta. She has also worked as a prosecutor in San Francisco, California, and Jacksonville, Florida.

When Ross joined the Fulton DA’s office, she was assigned to Superior Court Judge Melvin Westmoreland’s courtroom.

“Ms. Ross is an outstanding prosecutor,” said Westmoreland, who served more than two decades on the bench and is now retired. “This appointment should be beyond reproach.”

Westmoreland said Ross is an ethical and professional attorney and a kind and wonderful person.

“She knows criminal law better than almost any attorney I worked with on the bench and dispersed grace and mercy when appropriate to bring about justice,” he told the AJC.

Ross has received recognition for her work by the Georgia General Assembly and the Fulton County Board of Commissioners. A biography of Ross by the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism states that she was named the 2014 “Assistant District Attorney of the Year” by the District Attorneys’ Association of Georgia and received the 2007 “Home Run Hitters Club” award from the National District Attorneys’ Association.

The Riley case is not Ross’ first prosecution in Georgia’s Western Judicial Circuit, which covers Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties. She prosecuted a murder case in Oconee County in 2021, which led to an Athens man being sentenced to life in prison.

Ross would not comment on her involvement in the Riley case, a spokesperson for the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council said Tuesday.

- Greg Bluestein and Bill Rankin contributed to this report.