‘We’re about justice.’ Meet the prosecutor who will investigate Lt. Gov. Burt Jones

Pete Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, is the special prosecutor overseeing the criminal case against Atlanta police officers Garrett Rolfe and Devin Brosnan in the shooting death of Rayshard Brooks.

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Pete Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, is the special prosecutor overseeing the criminal case against Atlanta police officers Garrett Rolfe and Devin Brosnan in the shooting death of Rayshard Brooks.

Pete Skandalakis, who may have just given himself the most challenging case of a lifetime, has held a steadfast philosophy over his decades as a prosecutor.

“If we do the right thing, we can always defend it,” he said in a recent interview. “If it means dismissing a case, if it means aggressively prosecuting a certain case, do what you believe is right in your heart. Make sure you know all the facts of the case, and we can explain that to the public. The public may not agree with us, but they will appreciate knowing everything.”

On Thursday, Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia (PAC), appointed himself to decide whether Lt. Gov. Burt Jones should be criminally charged for his role in Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 president election results in Georgia. This means he is now in charge of investigating one of the most powerful politicians in Georgia — someone who has enormous influence over state funding for the district attorneys Skandalakis’ office represents as well as his own council, known as PAC.

Skandalakis, who has been criticized for taking almost two years to make the decision, took it on himself rather than appoint a local district attorney or private lawyer to take the case. In a statement, citing the rules of professional conduct for prosecutors, Skandalakis said he would have no comment on the case.

Jones has repeatedly said he did nothing wrong. In a statement, he welcomed the probe and said he looked forward “to the opportunity to get this charade behind me.” Jones was one of 16 GOP officials who cast Electoral College votes for Trump in December 2020 while the official Democratic electors cast their votes for Joe Biden. Three of Jones’ fellow Republican electors would later be indicted with Trump and 15 others in the election interference case.

Lt. Gov. Burt Jones leads members of the Senate into House chambers before the annual state of the judiciary address on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

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Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Skandalakis recently dodged a bullet — or, better yet, a bomb — when Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee declined to recuse District Attorney Fani Willis from the Trump case so long as special prosecutor Nathan Wade, with whom she was once linked romantically, withdrew from the case. Wade did resign, but if he had not done so, by law, the case against Trump and his 14 remaining co-defendants would have immediately been Skandalakis’ responsibility.

He was given Jones’ case in July 2022 when Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney recused Willis because she had held a fundraiser for Charlie Bailey, who would oppose — and lose to — Jones in the general election for lieutenant governor.

A Greek Orthodox upbringing

Skandalakis, 67, is an Atlanta native and a product of the city’s public school system. He said his tight-knit Greek Orthodox community helped shape his values.

Skandalakis’ grandfather was killed and his father captured by communist soldiers during the Greek Civil War of the 1940s. His father was spared only after Skandalakis’ grandmother begged his captors to release her son.

That son, John Skandalakis, immigrated to the U.S. years later. He would be joined by his brothers and sisters and have an arranged marriage with Eva Pamfilis, whose family also was from Greece. She became a stay-at-home mom raising Skandalakis and his three siblings. The family initially lived in Marietta but moved to Virginia-Highland.

After graduating from Northside (now North Atlanta) High School, Skandalakis got his undergraduate degree at the University of Georgia. He stayed there to get a master’s degree in public administration and then his law degree in 1984.

On a friend’s recommendation, Skandalakis applied for a position in the district attorney’s office in the Coweta Judicial Circuit southwest of Atlanta. He got the job, moved to LaGrange and has lived there ever since.

Straight-shooting DA

Within months, Skandalakis was trying his first criminal cases – and losing one after another after another.

“I lost my first seven cases in a row,” he recalled. “I got handed my tail every single time.”

William F. Lee Jr., the judge overseeing those trials, called Skandalakis into his chambers and gave him a sobering assessment. “He told me, ‘You’re the worst trial lawyer I’ve ever seen in my life,’” Skandalakis said.

Lee, who left the bench in 2012, took Skandalakis under his wing.

“He didn’t help me during a trial, but when the trial was over and the jury returned its not guilty verdict, he would say, ‘OK, get out your notebook,’ and he would go over my good points and my mostly bad points,” Skandalakis said. “It truly was a blessing.”

A few years later – by then, he was obtaining guilty verdicts – Skandalakis became chief assistant DA of the five-county Coweta circuit. In 1991, then-Gov. Zell Miller appointed him district attorney. Skandalakis won a contested election to keep the job in 1992 and was reelected six times without opposition before stepping down to head PAC in January 2017.

By then, Skandalakis was regarded as a fine trial lawyer as well as a straight-shooting district attorney.

“There was no hiding the ball with his evidence,” said Jerry Word, once the circuit’s public defender. “And if he had a dog of a case, he’d tell you that up front. And if you showed him something he didn’t know, he’d address it appropriately. I have the utmost respect for him. His integrity is beyond reproach.”

Divine intervention

Skandalakis has already had his share of high-profile cases, some of which received national attention.

One, Skandalakis said, occurred because of divine intervention – or, rather, a pine tree that fell on his red Ram pickup during a storm. The owner of the LaGrange body shop where Skandalakis took his truck recognized the DA and said he was the son of Fred Wilkerson, who had disappeared in 1987, more than a decade before.

When Tim Wilkerson was giving an estimate of the cost for the repairs, he asked Skandalakis if he’d reopen his father’s case.

Skandalakis did so and, in 2003, law enforcement officers obtained a search warrant for the property of Fred Wilkerson’s former girlfriend, Connie Quedens. Officers dug through debris almost 20 feet down a covered well near the house and found the remains of a body.

Inside the body’s blue jeans pocket were Wilkerson’s trademark lip balm and his keys. That and the recovery of some dentures led to the body being identified as Wilkerson’s. He had been shot in the back of the head.

For trial, a medical examiner reconstructed Wilkerson’s skeleton using the bones recovered from the well, Skandalakis said. Quedens was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

‘We’re about justice’

Skandalakis, who was named Georgia’s District Attorney of the Year in 2007, said he had a motto when leading the DA’s office: “Hire people who are smarter than you and who work harder than you and then get out of their way.”

Skandalakis was fiercely loyal to his assistant DAs, said Jeff Hunt, one of a core group of prosecutors who worked for Skandalakis for more than two decades.

“He always backed you up even if he would have done something differently on a case,” Hunt said. “It was always about doing the right thing. Because if you knew there was a problem with a case, acknowledge it upfront. That was Pete’s policy. He’d say, ‘If you think the guy didn’t do it, dismiss it.’”

As DA, Skandalakis had a mantra he tried to instill into his prosecutors from day one, said Sarah Japour, another longtime prosecutor in the office.

“He’d say, ‘We’re not on a side. We’re about justice,’” she said.

Skandalakis’ tenure at PAC has included assigning some of his attorneys on staff to handle prosecutions across the state. He also is an advocate for DAs during the legislative session when certain bills that affect the criminal justice system are being considered.

Rayshard Brooks

His potentially most volatile case while at PAC dropped in his lap in June 2021. That’s after Willis, the newly elected Fulton DA, was recused from prosecuting the case against Garrett Rolfe and Devin Brosnan, two Atlanta Police Department officers who had been charged in the killing of Rayshard Brooks in a Wendy’s parking lot on June 12, 2020.

A former prosecutor and current criminal defense attorney says today's decision in the Rayshard Brooks case shows disparity in legal system

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Brooks, who was under the influence and had drugs in his pocket, had fallen asleep in the restaurant’s drive-thru lane. After Brosnan questioned him and then called in Rolfe for backup, Brooks overpowered the two officers just as he was about to be placed under arrest. He grabbed Brosnan’s TASER and began fleeing across the Wendy’s parking lot. He twice fired the TASER at the pursuing Rolfe, who then pulled his gun and fired.

The stark videos showing Brooks, who was Black, shot to death by a white officer as he ran away led to violent protests across the city. It also drew national attention as demonstrations roiled America following George Floyd’s killing at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer just weeks earlier.

Then-Fulton DA Paul Howard, who would soon lose his reelection bid to Willis, was widely criticized for swiftly obtaining a murder charge against Rolfe and an aggravated assault charge against Brosnan before a thorough investigation was conducted. Willis said her office had to recuse itself because Howard had potentially acted unethically in bringing the case.

The case was eventually transferred to Attorney General Chris Carr, who asked Skandalakis to take it. Skandalakis signed on and hired former Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter to assist him in the investigation.

They took more than a year to announce their decision, largely because they had to sift through a mountain of evidence and reports from the GBI. They also had to wait months for expert consultants they had hired to review all the available video evidence, which was then synced up with the available audio recordings that had been obtained.

Skandalakis said they were purposefully deliberate. “Our concern during the entire process was getting it right, because we were worried about Atlanta,” he said.

At a lengthy news conference on Aug. 22, 2022, Skandalakis and Porter announced they were dismissing the 11 charges hastily brought by Howard against the two officers more than two years earlier. They found that Rolfe reasonably deployed lethal force and that the two officers lacked any criminal intent.

Former Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter shows portions of the surveillance video from the night of Rayshard Brooks' fatal shooting at a news conference Tuesday. Porter, at the request of special prosecutor Pete Skandalakis, reviewed the case against the two Atlanta police officers charged in Brooks' death.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

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Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Skandalakis, wanting to be as transparent as possible, walked through the 40-minute incident with a frame-by-frame analysis taken from the video and audio recordings.

“Black lives do matter,” he said. “I’ve spent my entire career representing Black victims of crime. I understand that the encounters between police and the African American community at times are very volatile. But I would ask them to look at the facts of this case, and this isn’t one of those cases.”

That afternoon and into the evening, there were no violent protests in the city.

“We thought if we made a very detailed presentation, explaining it step by step why we reached out decision, that would help defuse the situation,” Porter said. “That was the ending Pete and I had hoped for.”