District attorneys like to say they’re always one case away from losing an election. The adage that one foul-up wipes out a thousand attaboys has never applied to Paul Howard, though.
Fulton County’s top prosecutor has weathered letdowns in nationally publicized cases. He has also enjoyed high-profile victories. Along the way he has feuded with judges, politicians and the feds.
Now, the district attorney has tackled the most prominent and problematic case in his career by indicting former Atlanta school Superintendent Beverly Hall and 34 underlings. In doing so the 61-year-old Howard has set a new standard for public-corruption prosecutions, again shown his willingness to run through a prosecutorial minefield, and possibly made himself vulnerable to his political enemies.
In this case, Howard doesn’t take on a courthouse mass murderer, a corrupt cop or an NFL star but educators who may be more empathetic and held in some esteem. The Atlanta Public Schools racketeering case may be a roll of the dice in which Howard can’t afford to crap out.
“I don’t see it is a career maker: He has already made his career as a very good district attorney,” said his former chief deputy, Al Dixon. “If they’re not successful in prosecuting it, or it’s a disaster, it could be a career ender.
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“It has that possibility.”
A Controversial DA
The indictment Howard sought in the potentially precedent-setting case has drawn praise for courage in taking on the 66-year-old Hall, once a nationally respected educator and a jewel in the crown of the Atlanta establishment; and criticism for heavy-handedness perceived in teacher perp walks and multimillion-dollar bails.
“I think we should give them a fair trial in the court of public opinion because with this spectacle it is going to be harder to find jurors that haven’t been tainted,” said Mawuli Davis, a lawyer and activist. “If these people are going to be convicted, it has to be on the evidence and not by a lynch mob mentality.”
Howard’s job may tend to bring a view of the world in the sharp contrast of black and white; shades of gray are for defense attorneys. He’s almost always ready for battle if he thinks he’s right.
He has asked for the death penalty in cases where there was little political upside for him — once for a killer of a prostitute — when leaders of his political base opposed it. He has sought indictments against police after his investigation, often lengthy, concluded a shooting was not justified.
In the APS case, “There is a great deal of concern in the community because the teaching profession has always been held with such high regard and respect,” said Michael Langford, a political activist who closely monitors the district attorney and police. “Most people thought he would never indict Beverly Hall. To go after the superintendent, you have to be a little mentally deranged or believe in what you’re doing. I believe he believes in what he is doing.”
“He is a good man with … the best interests of the public at heart.”
In most death penalty cases, Howard has come up short. Taxpayers got a $3 million defense tab for courthouse mass murderer Brian Nichols only to see him get the sentence he had offered to plead guilty to get: life without parole. Howard has always contended that egregious cases obligate him to try for execution even if many potential juors oppose it, and he has won that sentence four times.
“If it is a crime that is so across-the-line, I’m not going to spend much time thinking, ‘Will they give it to him?’ ” Howard told The Atlanta Journal Constitution in 2009. He declined to comment for this story
He has also used innovative prosecutions to attack child pimps, targeting them for child molestation charges before state laws made pimping children a felony. He has beaten gangs such as the violent 30 Deep into oblivion.
Howard has a reputation as being incredibly methodical and for being a relentless micro-manager. That might leave his prosecutors feeling excessively well prepared for trial, badgered or even disrespected, but it has put Howard firmly on the hook for blame or credit.
“He will drive the people crazy — and probably already has — working on the case. He is a very thorough individual,” Dixon said. “The only way it ever works against him is that sometimes he will go down the wrong rabbit hole so you feel like you’re spending a lot of wasted time on things you don’t really need to, but that is just the way he is.”
Lessons from the past
That might help explain the two years Howard’s team spent re-investigating the APS case after a skilled team of investigators for Gov. Sonny Perdue turned over the findings of its own similarly long investigation. In the past Howard has moved quicker — sometimes to his detriment. In 2000, in his fourth year in office, Baltimore Raven Ray Lewis’ murder case exploded on Super Bowl weekend when two men were killed in a brawl with the now retired linebacker’s party.
Howard, who was up for re-election that year, took a seat at the prosecution table — a tactic he has not repeated — and watched the case evaporate as key witnesses changed testimony and Lewis, in a plea deal during the trial, became the main prosecution witness but gave testimony that bolstered self-defense arguments for his companions, who were acquitted. Lewis, initially charged with murder, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.
In that case, Gwinnett County Danny Porter said Howard and police were under tremendous pressure from civic leaders to make an arrest “so we can show Atlanta is safe” because Super Bowl XXXIV put a spotlight on the crime.
“I think every DA … always makes a decision that teaches you to be more deliberative,” Porter said. “That is probably why Paul took his time to make this (APS) case tighter. He is satisfied there is enough evidence that his allegations can be proven because if it blows up in his face, it is going to be messy.”
Porter suspects the Hall case put Howard under pressure from civic and business leaders not to prosecute because “to the chamber of commerce folks, the schoools are a big deal.”
An investigator for Gwinnett previously worked for Howard on the APS case and said prosecutors had assembled a powerful case, Porter said.
“If that turns out to be true, the DA office and Paul in particular are going to look like rock stars,” Porter said. “If the evidence doesn’t come out well, people are going to think it was politically motivated.”
One of Atlanta’s most notorious crimes displayed shortcomings in Howard’s judgement, in the view of lawyer Bill McKenney: the narcotics case where a falsified warrant by three police officers ended with the shooting death of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston in Vine City. McKenney’s client, Arthur Bruce Tesler, ended up defeating all state charges against him.
“I would say he is pretty methodical but I also would say he overextends cases,” McKenney said. “Sometimes he extends the criminality beyond the proof he has got.”
Tesler, the rookie on the team, participated in the coverup, not the illegal warrant or the shooting.
A jury acquitted Tesler of two charges but convicted him of lying to FBI investigators, which he admitted. The appellate court threw out that conviction because the actual lying took place at the FBI headquarters in DeKalb County where Howard did not have jurisdiction.
The Georgia Court of Appeals noted Howard failed to indict on conspiracy charges to solve jurisdictional issues — a mistake he hasn’t repeated in APS. Federal prosecutors retook control of the case, and Tesler ended up getting a five-year sentence.
“The first thing you do in any case is make sure you have jurisdiction and he did not have it in that case,” McKenney said. “I think he went after Tesler because he was in a competition with David Nahmias, the U.S. Attorney at the time … Paul said, ‘No, it happened in my county and I’m taking it.’ “
Morgan Cloud, an Emory University law school expert on racketeering, doesn’t see any overreach in Howard’s 90-page indictment in the APS case, which he described as as classic modern approach to the RICO statute, the law that enables such prosecutions. The prosecutor’s job will be making sure that jurors can follow the complex case with so many charges and multiple defendants — assuming that many of them don’t eventually cut deals to become prosecution witnesses.
Lawyer Page Pate said he expected deals to happen but said “the case will fall apart like a house of cards” if they don’t. To him, it has all the markings of a high-profile case that has more glitz than guts.
“I see a lot of the Ray Lewis case in this,” Pate said. “A big bang at the start and then a dud at the end.”