A tossed murder case leads to discord in DeKalb

Gov. Brian Kemp has appointed Shondeana Morris to the DeKalb County Superior Court. Morris previous served as a State Court judge. Photo provided by the Office of the Governor.

Gov. Brian Kemp has appointed Shondeana Morris to the DeKalb County Superior Court. Morris previous served as a State Court judge. Photo provided by the Office of the Governor.

A DeKalb County judge moved last week to find two murder suspects not guilty after a series of disagreements with prosecutors, leading to praise from defense attorneys and a vow from the district attorney to fight the decision.

Steven McAllister and Quintez Griffin were scheduled to face trial on Jan. 7 in the death of Carthel Lamont Johnson. Prosecutors described the 25-year-old as an innocent bystander to a robbery-turned-shooting inside a Brookhaven apartment in December 2018.

For weeks, prosecutors asked Superior Court Judge Shondeana Morris to delay the trial because two key state’s witnesses couldn’t be located. The judge, a longtime prosecutor who was appointed to the bench in June 2019 by Gov. Brian Kemp, said the prosecutors knew when the trial was for months and should have had their case ready. She denied five requests to reschedule the trial, as well as an attempt by the state to drop the charges. (The charges could have been brought back if the necessary witnesses were found, but the judge’s ruling means the defendants can’t be charged again.)

Once the trial started, the prosecutors, Oto Ekpo and Major Case Unit Director Lance Cross, declined to ask questions of the jurors, make an opening statement or call witnesses, saying it would be unethical to try the case without key witnesses.

Morris then granted a defense motion to rule the defendants were not guilty. Because of pending charges from other jurisdictions, McAllister and Griffin are still in jail.

District Attorney Sherry Boston said the prosecutors did everything in their power to get the witnesses to court on time, but they were avoiding authorities. Because acquittals can’t be appealed, Boston said her office is researching how to get justice for the victim’s family, including his mother, who was in court when the defendants were absolved.

“There’s a life that was lost,” Boston said in an AJC interview in her Decatur office. “There’s a family who watched all this go down.”

Drew Findling, who represented McAllister, praised the judge. What else was she supposed to do when the prosecutors wouldn’t participate in the trial? he asked. He said the judge’s decision was the only fair ruling she could’ve returned.

“This is a judge who was a career prosecutor,” Findling said. “We’re not talking about some pushover judge.”

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But the DA said the judge should have rescheduled, since that is an option used in many cases when witnesses can’t be found or other complications arise. Boston said she was still unclear why the judge wouldn’t grant a delay, especially after it became clear in late December that the witnesses were avoiding authorities.

In her order, Morris said the DA’s office filed belated motions and worked to keep the defendants in jail without bond. The prosecution had urged the judge against a bond request by saying they’d be ready for trial soon, Morris said. She also noted that on Dec. 9, the state asked to have DNA samples taken from the defendants, something that could have been done sooner because they had been in jail for a year.

“The State takes the position that these Defendants are dangerous to the community, but if so, it was the State which failed the community by failing to present any case at all for their conviction on the indicted charges,” Morris wrote. “If there are consequences to the community for this acquittal, such consequences are attributable solely to the State.”

Lester Tate, former head of Georgia’s Judicial Qualifications Commission, read the judge’s order and heard the DA’s position. He said he thought Morris’ reasoning was sound.

“If you’ve got a specially set trial coming up, judges may or may not grant you a continuance, so you really ought to do everything you can to get ready,” Tate said. “I think by opposing a bond, the state put themselves in a position where they need to be able to timely try the case.”

Cross, one of the prosecutors, argued that even if the DA’s office had supported bond for the defendants, they would still be in jail because of charges from other cases. He added that the judge could have rescheduled the trial and granted the defendants bond if she’d wanted.

One of the needed witnesses was a man who was initially charged with felony murder in the case, but was later determined by investigators to be a victim, not a suspect.

Findling, the defense attorney, said he and his co-counsel Brian Steel had looked forward to cross-examining the man because it would have proved the defendants weren’t guilty.

“We believed and will always believe in our clients’ innocence of these charges,” he said.

J. Tom Morgan, the former DeKalb County DA and a law professor, said he empathized with the state, but it is the prosecution’s job to be ready for trial, even if they are accustomed to some judges granting continuances.

“It’s not the defendant or the defendant’s counsel or the judge’s problem that the state’s witnesses aren’t being cooperative,” he said. If the judge is saying it’s time for trial, prosecutors must make an attempt or move on “because you’re in DeKalb County, and you’ve got a lot of crime to deal with.”

Boston said the witnesses are wanted on bench warrants in California because they missed a court appearance related to her office’s attempt to have them brought in to testify. But even if they are found, the case may be over.

“The judge has put the case in a posture that even if we get these witnesses, potentially we’re not able to prosecute these two defendants,” the DA said. “We don’t understand why the court felt it necessary to go to what appears to be the extreme.”