Alleged victims say powerful Georgia lawmaker repeatedly delays cases

Wednesday, February 13, 2019 @ 5:30 PM
By Johnny Edwards - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

David Shell has a long record of beating up women.

He once beat his ex-wife so badly she blacked out, her left eye nearly swollen shut, then he locked her in their home so she couldn’t reach a hospital, she said.

Another time, he threw a girlfriend to the ground and slapped and choked her, court records show.

So when another bruised and bloodied girlfriend told police he had flown into a rage and head-butted her and bit her finger at a camper park in Ellijay, Shell faced serious consequences. A grand jury charged him as a repeat offender, which could mean up to 20 years in prison for aggravated assault.

Yet more than four years after his indictment, Shell remains a free man, the charges against him stymied. A big reason: He paid a large retainer fee to hire an attorney who is also one of Georgia’s most powerful lawmakers, state Speaker of the House David Ralston.

Just as Ralston has done for other clients charged with violent or heinous crimes, he used his elected position to delay hearings and court dates, preventing the case from moving forward in the Gilmer County justice system.

“That’s why I gave him 20,000 bucks,” Shell told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “He’s worth every penny of it.”

Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A joint investigation by the AJC and Channel 2 Action News found that Ralston appears to be misusing the power of his public office to benefit his private law practice. By doing no more than writing letters to judges declaring that court dates interfere with his lawmaking duties, he has been able to keep cases perpetually off the docket. But his tactics can thwart justice, harm crime victims and put the public at risk.

Ralston has tied up cases for clients charged with child molestation, child cruelty, assault, terroristic threats, drunk driving and other crimes.

RELATED: David Ralston and the ‘cold hard reality’ of Georgia GOP politics

FROM 2016: Ga. House Speaker Ralston agrees to reprimand in State Bar complaint

Often, he writes letters that stave off cases in bulk. That keeps his clients free on bond, while their chances of escaping harsh punishment get better with every passing year.

“Please be advised that I am hereby requesting a continuance of these three cases from the criminal calendar call,” reads one of Ralston’s typical letters. “I hereby certify to the Court that my legislative duties and obligations will require that I be elsewhere on that date.”

Under a state law dating back to 1905, judges and prosecutors must defer to the legislative schedule of any practicing attorney who serves in the General Assembly. Other attorney-lawmakers, though, are mainly relegated to claiming the exemption during the annual 40-day legislative sessions.

As House speaker, Ralston, who practices law in the rural, mountainous counties of North Georgia, can claim conflicts year-round. In 21 cases examined in four counties over a two-year period, he filed 57 requests for continuances.

Of the 93 days he claimed to be unavailable for court, 76 were outside of legislative sessions and special sessions. Speaker duties during those times could include overseeing legislative offices and staff, appointing committee chairs and members, and appearing at conferences, civic meetings and party functions.

Ralston declined to grant an interview for this story, instead issuing a written statement through a spokesman.

“Legislative leave is a long-established provision of Georgia law which recognizes the unique needs of a citizen-legislature and protects the independence of the legislative branch of state government,” the statement said. “Like other members of the General Assembly, I utilize this provision outside of the legislative session, when necessary, to attend to my legislative duties as both a state representative and Speaker of the House.”

Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In case after case reviewed by the newspaper and Channel 2, Ralston utilized the provision repeatedly. One man’s DUI case has been pending for more than a decade, delayed at least 17 times by Ralston. A man charged with enticing a child for indecent purposes has been awaiting trial since 2009, with Ralston filing for 14 delays.

It’s been more than five years since a 14-year-old girl told police that a traveling evangelist who preached at her church and stayed over in her Hiawassee home raped and molested her. Ralston has put off that case in Towns County Superior Court at least eight times citing legislative duties and sessions.

Now a young adult, the victim goes to therapy every week trying to heal, but she also must preserve every memory of that night in case she’s ever cross examined, her parents told the AJC and Channel 2.

“I just feel like this attorney is wounding my daughter over and over again,” her mother said. “Every time we get our hopes up to get some release from the past, it’s always a setback. There’s no closure. There’s no moving forward from this.

“I think Mr. Ralston knows exactly what he’s doing,” she said.

Time on his side

Stalling can be an effective defense tactic, allowing the passage of time to ravage the state’s evidence against a defendant, said David LaBahn, president and CEO of the Washington-based Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

As the years pass, victims become frustrated and give up; witnesses back out of testifying, LaBahn said. Child victims grow up into less-sympathetic adults, diminishing the impact on a jury. Police officers and investigators retire or move on to other jobs. Evidence gets lost. Memories fade. Exasperated prosecutors become more willing to drop or reduce charges.

“On the prosecution side, it’s ‘justice delayed is justice denied,’” LaBahn said. “As it relates to the criminal defense community, they’ll say that the criminal case is much like fine wine. It improves over time.”

FROM 2017: David Ralston won’t join the race for governor, but will try to define it

POLITICALLY GEORGIA: A weekly podcast by the AJC’s Georgia Politics team

LaBahn said some of Ralston’s DUI cases are taking two and three times longer to settle than most murder cases.

“You clearly have a situation where, if you are accused in that jurisdiction, if you go and retain this individual to be your lawyer, you know that there’s not going to be anything near speedy justice,” LaBahn said. “And you know you pretty much have bought yourself a lot of time on your case. And that is not equal justice.”

Ralston has put off hearings at least seven times for David Shell, the client who says he paid him $20,000. Shell’s previous domestic violence charges in South Georgia and Cobb County took less than a year to resolve, and several led to stints in jail.

In a phone conversation with the AJC, Shell said he’s optimistic the district attorney will drop the latest charges, which he said are “nothing but a lie” because he was the victim in the incident. He said when he hired Ralston, the speaker explained to him upfront that he would delay his case “because he’s running for public office.”

Since taking on Shell’s case, Ralston has been re-elected twice, both as House speaker and as his district representative.

Shell explained his strategy in hiring him:

“The longer things wait, the less you remember,” he said. “People move away – they’ve gone. And if they can’t find this girl – which I don’t even know where she’s at anymore anyway – and when it comes to court and they ain’t got a witness or whatever, what are they going to do then?”

Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The victim in his case, ex-fiancé Jydon Carpenter, said if she ever gets a court date, she’ll be there. After Shell’s arrest, she sought help from a domestic abuse shelter and received treatment for PTSD. She wants closure.

But in an interview with the AJC and Channel 2, she struggled at times to recount what happened that night more than five years ago. She often conflated the events with other bad memories involving her ex, which she knows could be problematic on the stand.

“I’m never going to forget that night, but I might forget what led up to it, and other details,” she said. “It does piss me off that money can make things go away, and Ralston is charging people exorbitant amounts of money to make things go away.”

Waiting in vain

The law that allows attorney-legislators to delay cases includes no mechanism for a judge or opposing attorney to challenge a request for continuance. However, attorneys have a duty of candor to the court under State Bar of Georgia ethical rules, so judges can demand an explanation as to why a legislator can’t be in court, or ask for his or her calendar so a trial could be set during an open week.

That can be complicated when the attorney in question is arguably as powerful as the governor. Ralston has been known to throw his support behind opposing candidates running against elected officials who cross him, as he did with ex-representatives Sam Moore and Charles Gregory and current Rep. Matt Gurtler. Ralston also has two appointments to the Judicial Qualifications Commission’s investigative panel, which can investigate judges and recommend discipline.

One court official who declined to be interviewed for this story said it was because of fears of such political retribution.

Years ago, when a judge asked Ralston why he couldn’t be in court, he cited a luncheon, a conference at St. Simons, a party meeting in Florida and a speech in Savannah. His Facebook posts show that on some of the recent weeks he opted out of court, he was talking to middle schoolers, attending a Chamber of Commerce breakfast, meeting with then-gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp in Athens or greeting Vice President Mike Pence.

Ralston declined to share his calendars with reporters or provide his whereabouts on dozens of missed court dates over the past three years. Because the Legislature exempted itself from the Open Records Act, he doesn’t have to provide documents. The AJC and Channel 2 found no indications in case files of judges pushing back on Ralston’s numerous delays.

N. Stanley Gunter, chief judge over the four-county Enotah Judicial Circuit, did not return phone calls. Brenda Weaver, chief judge for the three-county Appalachian Judicial Circuit, backed out of a scheduled interview and said in a text message “any cases that were continued for legislative leave on my calendars were continued based on a proper request that met all of the requirements of the statute.”

Appalachian circuit District Attorney B. Alison Sosebee said that “as quickly as these cases can be tried would certainly be ideal.”

“I believe if there was a concern about a case being unnecessarily delayed, that my office or the judges would address that through the proper legal channels,” she said.

Asked if she’s ever had such concerns about Ralston’s delays, the DA said, “I’m not going to answer any more questions at this point.”

Ralston’s tactics have become so well known in North Georgia, several victims described receiving the crushing news of his involvement in their case. The mother of the now-20-year-old in the molestation case said she had a consoling conversation with an assistant district attorney, who warned her to brace for a long, long wait.

The family had expected to finally have their day in court in December. But court records show Ralston wrote to Judge Gunter, saying the governor had called for a special session in November and the law exempts him from court for three weeks after adjournment.

The 20-year-old said she almost told the assistant district attorney she can’t do this anymore.

“But if I were to do that, that would be giving up,” she said. “We’re not quitters.”

Her case dates back to 2012, when the family was hosting Jason Brothers, an evangelist who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, when he was in Georgia to preach at North Mt. Zion Church of God.

The daughter, who suffers from a congenital heart defect, got up during the night for a glass of water. She said Brothers asked her for a hug, then grabbed her.

After the family went to police, they said some in their church shunned them and rallied around Brothers. They told the AJC and Channel 2 they thought the trial would finally clear their names.

Brothers, who is under house arrest at his family’s house in Ohio, declined to speak to a reporter.

Photo: SPECIAL

Escaping consequences

Ralston’s maneuvering works so well, his cases often end in golden tickets to freedom for his clients.

In one example, he stalled a felony cruelty to children case, with a client charged with striking a child with a belt, for almost nine years. The district attorney finally dropped the charge, saying the victim had long since moved to New York.

After stalling another case for years, Ralston managed to get a drunk driver off light. George Leonard Poole, who had a prior DUI conviction in Tennessee, crossed the center line of a two-lane road in Hiawassee in 2010 and slammed head-on into a car driven by Melissa Reeve, according to a crash report. She had to be extricated from her mangled Kia Optima. She suffered a dislocated hip, a gash to her forehead, four broken bones in her left foot and a broken right toe.

Poole’s first legal team cut a plea deal with the district attorney’s office for six months in jail. In 2012, a judge rejected that deal as too lenient.

Then Poole hired Ralston, who wrote seven letters to the court delaying the case, court records show.

“When he acquired the guy and we checked into him, we knew that this was what he was going to do,” Reeve said. “We just didn’t feel like there was anything we could do about it.”

The case finally went to trial in 2015. By then, the state trooper who worked the crash had been fired over procedural errors in other reports, among other things. Ralston grilled him on the stand about details of his 2010 investigation, suggesting it wasn’t thorough.

The jury convicted Poole of just one count — driving under the influence — declaring him not guilty of reckless driving, failing to maintain his lane and six counts of serious injury by vehicle.

Contacted by phone, Poole said he was not the cause of the crash. “That was proved in court.”

His sentence: 10 days in jail.

--------------

DAVID RALSTON: Lawmaker, attorney at law 

Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

• Has served as Georgia’s 73rd Speaker of the House since 2010, when his peers elected him to replace Glenn Richardson, who resigned after news of an affair with a lobbyist. 

• Served in the state Senate from 1992 to 1998, then ran for state Attorney General, losing to Thurbert Baker. 

• Earns $99,000 per year as House speaker, but also has a law practice based in Blue Ridge. 

• Publicly reprimanded by the State Bar of Georgia in 2016, following a complaint that Ralston repeatedly postponed a client’s auto accident injury case using legislative leave, while loaning the client money for living expenses. In a settlement, Ralston admitted that he inadvertently violated two State Bar rules. 

• Faced public criticism in 2012 from Amanda Mosher, whose husband and 4-year-old daughter died in a Gilmer County car crash. Ralston represented the man charged with vehicular homicide, and with his repeated delays, the case dragged on more than eight years. Mosher appeared in a campaign ad when Ralston was being unsuccessfully challenged by Sam Snider in the 2014 Republican primary.