OPINION: Why so many Georgia DAs got dumped this election year

Residents participate in an impromptu peaceful march in Brunswick on June 4, 2020. A judge found probable cause against three suspects in the death of Ahmaud Arbery, so the case was bound over to Superior Court. Jackie Johnson, Brunswick’s district attorney, got the boot on Election Day last week largely because of her connection to the Arbery case. (ALYSSA POINTER / alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)
Residents participate in an impromptu peaceful march in Brunswick on June 4, 2020. A judge found probable cause against three suspects in the death of Ahmaud Arbery, so the case was bound over to Superior Court. Jackie Johnson, Brunswick’s district attorney, got the boot on Election Day last week largely because of her connection to the Arbery case. (ALYSSA POINTER / alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer, alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer, alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

It’s been a tumultuous, divisive and crazy year in the arenas of politics, law enforcement and justice.

And those who operate at the nexus of those fields are becoming a vanishing species. I’m talking about incumbent district attorneys in Georgia.

At least eight incumbent DAs have been beaten this year for a myriad of reasons, including those who represent the state’s five biggest cities: Atlanta, Augusta, Columbus, Macon and Savannah. Also tossed out: DAs in Gwinnett and Cobb counties, as well as the embattled prosecutor in Brunswick in southeast Georgia.

Jackie Johnson, Brunswick’s DA, who’s a Republican, lost on Election Day to an independent candidate largely because of her connection to the case of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man shot to death while jogging.

Another prosecutor, Fulton County’s six-term DA, Paul Howard, got jettisoned in a Democratic primary runoff this summer after being investigated for using nonprofit money to augment his salary.

Gwinnett’s seven-term Republican DA Danny Porter got caught in a Democratic wave that hit his county. The same thing happened in Cobb.

And in politics there’s always the weird and nutty, so we’ll look to Columbus, where DA Julia Slater was defeated by a man who was arrested days before the Democratic primary for his role in making a rap video. And that helped his campaign.

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The prosecutorial musical chairs is historic. “I cannot remember a single time when I saw this kind of turnover,” said Pete Skandalakis, who heads the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia. In addition to the eight defeated at the polls, he thinks another seven have retired. That means 15 of the state’s 49 judicial circuits will have new chief prosecutors.

“It’s very hard to beat an incumbent,” said Skandalakis, who won seven elections himself in west Georgia. “When a DA is doing his or her job, you don’t get a lot of attention.”

Three-term DA Slater figured she was doing just that until a local attorney, Mark Jones, tried his luck. Jones, who is white, as is Slater, picked up on the sense of racial unrest and a feeling of unfairness in the system early this year and fashioned himself as “The People’s DA.”

Mark Jones, a candidate for district attorney in Columbus, made a rap video in May and later got arrested in connection with it. He was charged after cars did donuts in the ad. (credit: Mark Jones campaign)
Mark Jones, a candidate for district attorney in Columbus, made a rap video in May and later got arrested in connection with it. He was charged after cars did donuts in the ad. (credit: Mark Jones campaign)

Credit: Mark Jones campaign

Credit: Mark Jones campaign

In May, Jones did a video outside the Columbus Civic Center where a rapper named JawGa Boi sang “Get out to vote” while the candidate tried to do his best “street” poses — that is, as well as a white dude in a blue suit with a red tie can do. In the video is an aerial shot from a drone of a car doing donuts in the expansive parking lot.

For that, two young Black men were arrested on felony charges and held on $300,000 bond. The felony? First-degree criminal damage to property — leaving rubber on asphalt.

No, seriously.

Jones was also arrested on felony charges. Slater has said she had nothing to do with the charges. A couple of weeks later, Jones won the primary race and was, in essence, elected DA since there was no Republican challenger.

“It was an effort to terminate his candidacy, but it had the opposite effect,” said Chris Breault, Jones’ attorney, regarding the arrest.

“The public was outraged and saw the arrest as the police trying to take control of an election. He was running on a campaign to, as he says, hold rogue police officers accountable,” Breault said.

On Monday, the day before the general election in which he ran unopposed, Jones was indicted by a former prosecutor appointed by the state attorney general’s office. One charge was felony “serious injury by vehicle” connected with a DUI charge from last year, when Jones bumped into the back of a woman’s car. He blew just over the blood alcohol content legal limit of 0.08. The other was the felony donuts charge.

His attorney says the woman was not “seriously” injured and calls the indictment an “election surprise” so Republicans can “keep him under their thumb.” A state commission will meet after Jones is sworn into office in January to determine if the governor should suspend him.

A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office told the Columbus media that Breault’s contentions are “categorically untrue” — which I think means worse than just plain old “untrue.”

In Brunswick, the seemingly impossible occurred when a political neophyte named Keith Higgins scraped together more than 8,000 signatures to put him on the ballot against Jackie Johnson, who was seeking her fourth term.

Higgins, a former prosecutor in that office, was disgusted with the actions (or, more so, inactions) of Johnson in the killing of Caroline Small, who was shot to death by a couple of trigger-happy cops in 2010 after a slow-speed chase. A GBI investigator later told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution it was the worst police shooting he’d ever seen. There’s a video. It’s bad. But Johnson did not push to prosecute the case.

Then it got worse. In 2018, Johnson cut a deal to let one of those cops, Cory Sasser, out of jail after he was in an armed standoff with fellow cops. Earlier that month, he bonded out after being arrested for harassing his estranged wife at her home. She told police he threatened to kill her.

Weeks later, Sasser did just that. He hunted her down and executed both her and a male friend.

The horror of the Sasser case spurred Higgins to run for office. He figured it was a quixotic battle against an entrenched opponent but felt “compelled to run.”

“If I didn’t, no one else would,” he said.

In January, Higgins started gathering signatures to get on the ballot as an independent candidate, an arduous process. In February, Arbery was shot to death by a shotgun-toting Travis McMichael who was chasing him in his pickup truck, along with his father Greg McMichael, who used to work in the DA’s office.

Johnson passed the case off to a DA in another circuit, and that prosecutor was set to wave it off as a good killing when a tape of the incident went public and the case became national. Even Joe Biden commented on it as a “cold-blooded” killing.

Katie Kettles Sasser at her front door the night of May 13, 2018, as officers answer a domestic incident involving her estranged husband Lt. Robert C. Sasser. This photo is from police body cam footage. The man in the background is John Hall Jr. Both Kettles Sasser and Hall were fatally shot by Lt. Sasser on June 28, 2018, at Hall’s home. Sasser then killed himself with a gunshot in a SWAT incident at his home.
Katie Kettles Sasser at her front door the night of May 13, 2018, as officers answer a domestic incident involving her estranged husband Lt. Robert C. Sasser. This photo is from police body cam footage. The man in the background is John Hall Jr. Both Kettles Sasser and Hall were fatally shot by Lt. Sasser on June 28, 2018, at Hall’s home. Sasser then killed himself with a gunshot in a SWAT incident at his home.

After the tape’s release, Higgins’ phone blew up with people wanting to help his campaign, which was probably dead in the water at that point because COVID-19 had almost ceased his efforts to collect signatures. Higgins, a conservative man, became the head of a multiracial, dual-party constituency.

“People wanted a choice in the DA,” he said. “They wanted a change and said, ‘Let’s get this guy on the ballot.’”

On Election Day, the upstart beat Johnson 53% to 47%.

In the next election, he said he’ll run again as an independent.

“I’m not going to switch to a party affiliation,” he said. “That would be a slap in the face of the people who voted for me.”

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