Updated: Federal judge sanctions Chatham DA for ‘utter nonsense’

Cook Jones reprimanded after judge says she evaded deposition in lawsuit against her

SAVANNAH — A federal judge sanctioned Chatham County District Attorney Shalena Cook Jones on Thursday, issuing an order that called her attempts to evade an April deposition in a sexual discrimination lawsuit in which she is a defendant “utter nonsense built on fabrications.”

U.S. District Judge R. Stan Baker of the Southern District of Georgia ruled Cook Jones in default in the case. The complaint, brought by a former assistant prosecutor in Cook Jones’ office, Skye Musson, alleges Cook Jones’ fostered a “bro culture” upon taking over the DA’s office in January 2021 and that Cook Jones denied Musson a promotion because of her gender.

Musson resigned from the DA’s office in June 2021 and now practices law in Savannah as a defense attorney.

In a written statement, Cook Jones said she disagreed with Baker’s opinion. She cited a scheduling conflict with a case she was trying that she said went longer than she expected.

Cook Jones is in her first term as Chatham’s district attorney and has been beset by challenges, including a mass exodus of more than 25 assistant district attorneys. She’s also drawn scrutiny for striking plea deals in 27 of 40 murder cases in 2021 and 2022. According to an investigative report published in April by The Savannah Morning News, her 32% conviction rate in murder cases was among the lowest in the state over that span.

For comparison, DeKalb and Fulton prosecutors recorded 87% conviction rates in murder cases in that period.

Cook Jones’ troubles have led to calls for probes of her office, including by one state lawmaker, Georgia Rep. Jesse Petrea, a Savannah Republican. Petrea was among the co-sponsors of Senate Bill 92, which created the Prosecuting Attorneys Qualifications Commission with the power to investigate district attorneys for misconduct.

In May, Gov. Brian Kemp signed SB 92 into law not in Atlanta or Athens — home to two other often-scrutinized DAs, Fulton’s Fani Willis and Athens-Clarke County’s Deborah Gonzalez — but at the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office.

The Prosecuting Attorneys Qualifications Commission started work Oct. 1. The panel has already received a filing against Willis, submitted by eight members of the Georgia Senate.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Petrea said Friday that he has no intention of filing a complaint against Cook Jones over the federal court sanctions.

“I have helped create a path for others who have been failed by this DA. That is my job,” Petrea wrote in a text message. “The numerous citizens and families of victims I have spoken to can do so now however.”

The federal court sanction gives Cook Jones’ critics grounds for a complaint. Baker admonished the Chatham DA repeatedly in his 50-page ruling, saying she “mocked the court’s generosity” in relation to the sexual discrimination suit brought by Musson.

Baker’s order opens ominously, stating: “This Court does not relish sanctioning attorneys or parties. Nor does it do so lightly. Unfortunately, Defendant Shalena Cook Jones leaves the court no choice.”

The ruling focuses on Cook Jones’ evasiveness in cooperating in a deposition. The DA agreed to be deposed on April 11, only to assume the role of trial counsel in a rape case that started April 4 and lasted through April 12.

Cook Jones didn’t notify the courts or Musson’s legal team of the scheduling conflict until April 10, “literally hours and minutes before her April 11 deposition,” Baker wrote. Cook Jones blamed a surprise decision by the rape trial defendant to testify for extending the proceedings.

The judge challenged Cook Jones’ reasoning, citing emails the DA sent April 10 that show she knew the rape trial would extend into the next day and possibly beyond. Baker said Cook Jones’ claim was “not only false, it is materially false.”

In her statement to the AJC, Cook Jones maintained that the length of the rape trial case was unexpectedly long.

“District Attorneys are often required to make difficult decisions in the execution of their duties, particularly as it relates to staffing and trying cases,” Cook Jones said. “However, I believe that the victim I was representing, the presiding judge and the community I was elected to serve would agree I made the right decision to focus on that trial until it was concluded.”

About the Author