OPINION: Fulton DA hopes putting cops in jail will keep him in office

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard speaks during a news conference on June 17, 2020, at Fulton County Superior Courthouse, where he announced the charges against Garrett Rolfe, the now-fired police officer who fatally shot Rayshard Brooks twice as Brooks ran during an attempted arrest in an Atlanta Wendy’s parking lot. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard speaks during a news conference on June 17, 2020, at Fulton County Superior Courthouse, where he announced the charges against Garrett Rolfe, the now-fired police officer who fatally shot Rayshard Brooks twice as Brooks ran during an attempted arrest in an Atlanta Wendy’s parking lot. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

It’s as plain as the spectacles on Paul Howard’s face: The Fulton County district attorney is bastardizing his office to hang on to his job.

Wednesday's news conference where Howard announced charges against two Atlanta cops was a travesty. It was a wounded candidate using the death of a man killed by police to weave together a series of bald-faced prevarications and obfuscations to get past a challenger who has him on the ropes.

Before the George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and now Rayshard Brooks protests and disturbances, Howard's 24-year career as DA looked like toast. There were allegations of sexual impropriety with subordinates, and the GBI is criminally investigating him for paying himself $195,000 of city of Atlanta money funneled through a nonprofit he headed, one set up to combat youth violence.

A week before the June 9th primary, Howard moved quickly to criminally charge six Atlanta cops who used Tasers on two college kids. Now-resigned Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields, who'd quickly fired two of those cops, called out Howard as a crass, calculating politician.

But he was just getting warmed up.

» RELATED: Fulton County DA leads one investigation and is the subject of another

Whether those arrests gave Howard a bump in the primary election is unknown, but he came in second to his former assistant, Fani Willis, 42% to 35%, and now heads to a bitter runoff.

Willis may have raked in more campaign contributions than Howard, as many former backers say it’s time for him to go. But he knows the killing of a black man by a white cop is worth untold publicity, especially if he can paint himself as a warrior for civil rights.

Howard’s announcement on the charges was broadcast nationally on CNN, which carried live footage of an empty courtroom for 20 minutes, allowing the district attorney to build dramatic anticipation.

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard announces the charges against former Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe, who shot Rayshard Brooks twice during a suspected DUI arrest at an Atlanta Wendy’s. The announcement was made during a news conference at Fulton County Superior Courthouse on June 17, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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The news conference, which looked more like a manipulative campaign speech, was a series of ridiculous statements, bordering on the absurd.

For starters, let’s try out Howard’s idyllic description of Brooks, who was found passed out in his car in a Wendy’s drive-thru. Brooks, he said, “was peacefully sleeping in his car,” “was calm, cordial and cooperative” and “never presented himself as a threat.”

“Even though Mr. Brooks was slightly impaired, his demeanor during this incident was almost jovial,” Howard said. “For 41 minutes and 17 seconds he followed every instruction, he answered the questions.”

It’s true, the legally drunk Brooks never presented himself as a threat — until he suddenly started fighting two cops, punched one, gave another a concussion, stole one of their Tasers, ran and then tried to shoot it at Garrett Rolfe, the cop being charged with murder.

Howard sounds like a defense attorney reasoning, “My client was an absolute sweetheart, umm, until he hit the victim with a hammer.”

The first 29 minutes don’t prepare you for the all-too-familiar tragedy that follows: a white police officer, a black male victim, lethal gunshots and questions about whether any of it was justified. It happened again in Atlanta Friday night, when Officer Garrett Rolfe fired three times at a fleeing Rayshard Brooks. Both men, 27 years old. The shooting would set off a stunning chain of events, culminating in the resignation early Saturday night by Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields. (Video edited by Ryon Horne, Christian Boone)

Another Howardism hints it was the cops’ fault that Brooks started fighting. The cops, he said, “never informed (Brooks) that he was under arrest,” as required by the Atlanta Police Department. “Then he was grabbed from the rear by Officer Rolfe, who made an attempt to physically restrain him after the 41-minute and 17-second discussion,” the DA said, adding: “It was one of our important considerations that Mr. Brooks never presented himself as a threat.”

But according to the video, Rolfe told Brooks, "All right, I think you've had too much to drink to be driving, so put your hands behind your back for me."

Three seconds later, all hell broke loose.

Here’s another: “We have also concluded that Rolfe was aware that the Taser in Brooks’ possession, that it was fired twice. And once it’s fired twice, it presented no danger to him or to any other persons.”

It’s extremely doubtful amid the commotion that Rolfe had any clue how many times the other cop’s Taser was fired.

Again, Howard: “Now we have had something quite remarkable that happened in this case, and it involves the testimony of the other officer, Devin Brosnan, because Officer Brosnan has now become a state’s witness.”

Atlanta defense attorney Don Samuel, who represents Brosnan, almost fell off his chair back at the office hearing this, and fired off a message saying it was “absolutely untrue” that such a deal had been made. “Shame on the district attorney for this abuse of his charging power,” Samuel added.

The GBI also quickly sent out its own statement, saying the agency was not aware of the news conference before it was conducted, nor was it consulted on the charges. The GBI added it would complete an “impartial and thorough investigation.”

Howard noted that Rolfe's case could qualify for the death penalty, although it has none of the aggravating factors needed in Georgia, such as a double killing, or a rape in addition to murder. And Howard has said he will no longer seek the death penalty.

Howard, who has three or four old cop-shooting cases moldering unfinished, said he could move this case so quickly because of all the videotape. He tossed aside complaints that he was politicizing this.


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I’m not saying Rolfe shouldn’t be charged with something. After all, he shot a fleeing suspect who then died of “gunshot wounds of the back,” the medical examiner's office said. But for the other cop, Brosnan, to get charged with aggravated battery for initially standing on Brooks’ arm is a stretch.

Perhaps Howard thinks he’ll help cool down the anger in the streets. But if this rushed case fails later, the flames will come again.

Ashley Dopson paints a picture of Rayshard Brooks on June 14, 2020, in the Wendy’s parking lot in southwest Atlanta where Brooks was killed by a police officer on June 12, 2020. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Last month, it was very clear the GBI needed to come in and investigate the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery in southeast Georgia to give it a sense of independence and fairness. It was also very clear that two district attorneys wrongfully worked on and even meddled in the case, even though they seemed to have clear biases in favor of one of the defendants, a former DA's investigator. The case was ultimately moved to the Cobb County district attorney.

District attorneys, like judges, are expected to recuse themselves in the event of having a bias in a case, such as when there’s the appearance of favoring law enforcement officers whom they work with daily.

Conversely, Howard, who has a long, heated relationship with the police, who is being investigated criminally, who is in a tough election race, wants to change the subject.

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Doug Collins has asked for state Attorney General Chris Carr to appoint a special, and independent, prosecutor here.

I often disagree with Collins. But this time he’s dead right.