Keith Higgins, a former Glynn County Assistant District Attorney, believes special prosecutors are needed to ensure public confidence in police shooting cases. CREDIT: Stephen Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution
Photo: Stephen B. Morton
Photo: Stephen B. Morton

Special prosecutor urged for police shooting cases

A proposal to change who prosecutes fatal police shooting cases in Georgia is headed to a state Senate committee Monday where police and prosecutors are expected to strongly oppose the plan.

The proposal would require a special prosecutor appointed in cases where an officer shoots and kills a person in the line of duty. It is an attempt to bring an extra layer of independence and remove any perception that local politics or a local district attorney’s ties to law enforcement can influence how the case is investigated and prosecuted.

“I think we’ve seen around the country that these can be very emotionally charged situations,” said Sen. William T Ligon, Jr., R-Brunswick, who is heading the effort. “We’re looking at this in the context of the process and what’s going on around the country and the desire to have a review by someone who may not be closely connected to the circuit and the parties involved.”

Ligon, the Senate Majority Caucus Chair, said the proposal will be tacked onto a replacement bill for House Bill 941, which curtails certain unique grand jury privileges law enforcement officers in Georgia enjoy when they face possible prosecution for actions taken in the line of duty.

Georgia is the only state that allows an officer facing a possible indictment to sit in the grand jury room for the entire process, hear all the evidence against them and make a statement that can’t be questioned by prosecutors or grand jurors.

An investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News last year revealed that of 184 fatal shootings by police since 2010, not one officer faced a criminal trial. (In January, an officer in DeKalb County was indicted in a fatal shooting.)

Brunswick shooting focus of debate

One of the cases highlighted in the series involved the 2010 shooting death of Caroline Small by two police officers in Glynn County. The AJC/Channel 2 investigation raised questions about Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson’s relationship with the local police department and whether it may have influenced her actions in presenting the case to a 2011 grand jury that cleared the officers.

The case was a subtext at a Senate Judiciary Non-Civil committee hearing last week where the special prosecutor proposal was introduced. Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, who is the chief sponsor of the bill in the House, told Ligon and the committee that he understands the concerns driving the idea for a special prosecutor.

“Candidly, the first thing that comes to mind was the shooting in Brunswick,” Golick said. “In Brunswick, is that the prototype example we see across the state or is that an outlier? My personal feeling is it was an outlier. It was a terrible outlier, but an outlier none the less.”

One of the ex-prosecutors in Glynn County, Keith Higgins, who appeared in the AJC/Channel 2 series criticizing Johnson’s conduct, also testified before the committee. Higgins, a former senior prosecutor in Glynn County, told lawmakers that elected district attorneys are not immune from political pressures that can cut both ways in high profile cases — leading to either overzealous conduct or a lack of prosecution.

“The issues and concerns in these cases are greater than transparency or actual fairness,” Higgins said. “The procedures also must provide confidence to the public that these cases are being handled fairly and impartially. The only way that can be done is to provide a special prosecutor.”

Sheriffs, DAs opposed

Some powerful political forces are lining up against the special prosecutor proposal. The state’s sheriff’s association is expected to be at Monday’s hearing to oppose the idea. And district attorneys across Georgia were talking Friday about organizing a response.

They “are overwhelmingly in opposition” to the idea of a special prosecutor who would automatically replace them in fatal police shooting cases, said Brian Fortner, the Douglas County District Attorney, who helped lead the DA’s effort to shape House Bill 941.

He said that bill, which has already passed the House, would fix many of the concerns in the current grand jury system. An officer involved in a shooting would no longer get to sit in on the entire grand jury hearing to hear all the evidence. The officer would still get to make a statement to grand jurors, but would be subject to cross-examination.

The bill calls for a transcript of the entire proceeding that would become available to the public and provide transparency and accountability for the district attorney’s actions. Fortner said automatically removing local DAs in police shooting cases would also take away voters’ role in holding them accountable for their decisions.

“To presume we’re incapable of doing them, it’s a step in the wrong direction,” Fortner said. “This entire effort was brought about the district attorneys in the state of Georgia. The DA’s recognized there’s a problem with the way these cases are handled.”

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