Special prosecutors needed in police shooting cases, witness says

In a move that has the potential to change who prosecutes police shooting cases across the state, a South Georgia senator said Wednesday he supports a proposal that would bring in a special prosecutor to handle serious shooting cases.

Senator William T. Ligon Jr. represents Glynn County where local district attorney conduct following the 2010 fatal shooting of Caroline Small raised concerns about her independence in the case. Ligon said Wednesday he’s planning to introduce a proposal bring in an independent, outside prosecutor to handle serious police shooting cases.

The proposal is intended to limit the influence of the local district attorney in these cases. They work closely with police in their district every day and critics say that relationship can create an appearance of conflict of interest or raise suspicions of political influence that chips away at the public’s confidence in the outcomes.

“It would remove as much as humanly possible any political pressures with regard to the exercise of prosecutorial discretion as to whether or not to prosecute a case,” said Keith Higgins, a former prosecutor in the Brunswick office, who testified Wednesday at a Senate Non-Civil Judiciary Committee hearing. “It would also make sure the abuses that were committed by the elected DA in the Caroline Small case would never again happen in this state.”

The Small case was mentioned several times during the hearing as senators considered House Bill 941 that curtails certain grand jury privileges for police officers in shooting cases.Ligon’s proposal is expected to be introduced as an amendment to that bill.

Chuck Spahos, executive director of the Georgia Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council, said the logistics of bringing in a special prosecutor for each serious police shooting case could present a problem. Currently, his office or a district attorney from another district is called in when there is a conflict of interest.

He said bringing in a special prosecutor for all serious police shooting cases could present challenges.

“It becomes problematic,” Spahos said. “That’s the question. Who’s going to do it and how are they going to do it?”

In recent years, the state has averaged about 29 fatal police shootings a year, according to an AJC/Channel 2 Action News analysis last year.

DA Johnson has refused repeated requests for interviews regarding the Small case.

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