OPINION: Welcome to the crowded courthouse of Fulto-Rico

An array of the mug shots of those arrested March 5, 2023, at the site of the proposed Atlanta police training center.

Credit: DeKalb County Sheriff's Office

Credit: DeKalb County Sheriff's Office

An array of the mug shots of those arrested March 5, 2023, at the site of the proposed Atlanta police training center.

Fulton County District Attorney likes to say she’s a “fan of RICO.” It allows prosecutors to “tell the whole story.”

Georgia’s racketeering law allows prosecutors wide latitude in wrapping lots of individuals into one big package of conspiracy, a tactic that effectively spreads the guilt around.

Famously, Willis has done that alleging the popular rapper Young Thug is the kingpin of a murderous street gang and that Old Thug — aka Donald Trump — was el jefe of a crew bent on stealing an election.

Now, Attorney General Chris Carr feels left out on the action, so he’s clicked the RICO dial up to 11.

Last week, Georgia’s top lawman unveiled a wide-ranging RICO indictment accusing 61 people of activities ranging from arson to hanging around in the woods in a treehouse. They’re alleged to be part of the mob who likes to break things in an effort to stop the construction of Atlanta’s Public Safety Training center, or Cop City, as they call it.

And if RICO, as Willis says, tells the whole story, then Carr did one better and wrote a saga that goes waaaaay back to describe the origins of anarchism. (I believe it started when some cavemen smeared mammoth manure on their neighbors’ cave etchings just to be jerks.)

The AG’s pages-long, history/philosophy lesson digs into “collectivism, mutualism/mutual aid, and social solidarity” and meanders all over the place.

Atlanta rapper Young Thug (real name Jeffery Williams) appears in court for a bond hearing on Friday, July 21, 2023. Glanville denied bond to Williams for a third time. (Natrice Miller/ Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

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Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

One lawyer said it read like a high school term paper without footnotes.

The intention of its long preamble is to describe why these people are smashing windows, setting construction equipment ablaze and running around in the woods where the city wants to build a 85-acre training facility.

Carr’s effort is to punish those who’ve committed criminal acts and to send a harsh message to others who might be inclined to continue to do so. Also, the Republican would like to one day run for governor and sticking it to the moonbats is good politics on that side of the divide.

Training center opponents and civil liberties groups are howling, saying the indictment is an affront to free speech.

But so are the supporters of Trump & Co., as are fans of Young Thug, whose rap lyrics are sprinkled throughout his indictment.

Carr’s office told me his “job is to prosecute those who commit or enable violent criminals acts. Violence is not ‘speech’ and will not be tolerated in Georgia.”

Carr’s 61 defendants dwarf the 19 named in the Trump case and the 28 originally indicted in the rapper’s.

The sweeping range of such RICO cases usually means there are some, or even many, who are overcharged. Some of the alleged criminal activities in the latest case are pretty serious, although many are not. There’s little doubt numerous “Forest Defenders” are largely peons following the crowd or a cause.

Mary Hooks, with the Movement for Black Lives, speaks with media during a protest at the construction site of Atlanta's planned public safety training center on Constitution Road in Atlanta on Sept. 7, 2023 (Riley Bunch/riley.bunch@ajc.com)

Credit: Riley Bunch

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Credit: Riley Bunch

It’s often reported that those convicted of RICO face at least 5 years in prison and up to 20. That’s not entirely true. The five-year minimum can be all probation. And I’ll wager many will plea to some lesser offense. Or the charges will be dropped. Or they’ll slowly fade away.

More so, the problem with this RICO-mania is the Fulton courthouse may grind to a standstill. Or function worse than it already does.

Willis told the judge it would take about four months to present the Trump case at trial, excluding jury selection. He seemed unconvinced, and rightly so.

The Young Thug case started its proceedings to pick a jury — in January. It’s uncertain when opening statements might occur.

Defense lawyer Bob Rubin had a client in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating trial a decade ago. That took eight months. He has a client in the Cop City case, James Marsicano, a law student from North Carolina. Rubin says his client, who was arrested in the woods in March after some machinery was set ablaze, was just there for the music fest.

However, Marsicano has been arrested in other protests, so I’d wager he was there for more than just the tunes.

Rubin said prosecutors have increasingly used RICO charges for more than a decade. “I think they all went to some conference on Jekyll Island; it’s like a new toy,” he said.

The problem is that each case ties up a judge, a courtroom, a prosecutor and many defense attorneys. All those attorneys have cases waiting in other courts or clients sitting in jail awaiting their day in court.

“Then multiply that by 60,” Rubin said, adding the “ripple effect” can be staggering.

That’s to be considered when you have a crowded facility like Fulton’s jail, which has had 10 inmates die this year, six in the last five weeks. Many inmates there are awaiting a court hearing.

Attorney Suri Chadha Jimenez, left, bought wings for attorneys in the YSL case after being held in contempt for being late to court on Tuesday.

Credit: Suri Chadha Jimenez

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Credit: Suri Chadha Jimenez

Attorney Suri Chadha Jimenez has a client in the ongoing Young Thug case. A decade ago, Jimenez was a Fulton assistant DA prosecuting lower-end cases. He used the RICO on a couple of prolific check kiters, and the maneuver ended up getting plea deals.

“It’s an effective tool,” he said. “But I was drinking the Kool-Aid at the time.”

Jimenez has seen the ripples of this RICO.

He said a client in Cherokee County on traffic charges was threatened by a judge there to show up in court every day for the rest of the year until Jimenez could appear. The lawyer, of course, has been stuck in a Fulton courtroom most days since January.

In May, the judge in the Young Thug trial threatened to find Jimenez in contempt of court for being late.

Why was he late? He was trying to settle up an old case in Cobb County.