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Lawsuit Says District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez Isn’t Doing Her Job

Deborah Gonzalez

The four Superior Court justices for Athens and Oconee County sent a joint letter to embattled Western Circuit District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez in October urging her to pick up the pace in handling a large backlog of cases that built up while courts were closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Oct. 17 letter—signed by judges Eric Norris, Patrick Haggard, Lisa Lott and Lawton Stephens—said that Gonzalez was not performing her duties in a timely manner, including offering pleas, providing discovery and witness lists, coordinating with law enforcement and recommending drug possession suspects to a special accountability court for people with substance abuse problems (one of her major campaign promises).

“With so many cases waiting to be tried, it is imperative that the Court not be further delayed by the State’s lack of preparation and/or failure to follow proper procedures,” the judges wrote. “We understand that [assistant district attorney] staffing issues and high turn-over rates have created additional stresses and difficulties for the remaining attorneys who are already handling such large case loads. With that in mind, we must all work together to move cases toward their just resolution with timeliness and accuracy.”

The letter was revealed through a legal document called a writ of mandamus filed last week by Watkinsville lawyer Kevin Epps on behalf of Jarrod Miller, a downtown Athens bar owner, who is essentially asking a judge to order Gonzalez to do her job.

Gonzalez—elected in 2020 despite lacking a background in criminal law—said at a recent town hall meeting that she had originally viewed the job of DA as an administrative one, setting policy and managing more experienced prosecutors. But down to five ADAs out of 17 funded positions, she stepped into the courtroom herself. “I might have walked in with no prosecution experience,” she said. “Let me tell you, I have plenty now.”

What Gonzalez did not say is that local judges all but ordered her to get involved in the day-to-day running of her office. “We expect for you to directly appear and participate [in] sessions of criminal arraignments, final pleas, jury trials, grand juries, and motion hearings,” they wrote. 

Gonzalez’s forays into the courtroom have not often gone in her favor. She lost her first case, a murder trial in January. Last week, a jury acquitted a man accused of choking his ex-girlfriend in front of her three children in a case Gonzalez tried herself, according to Classic City News, a crime-focused website run by former Athens Banner-Herald reporter Joe Johnson.

Miller, the owner of 1785 Bar and Grill on East Clayton Street, told 11Alive that he was motivated by the death of Ariana Zarse, a University of Georgia student who was killed while walking across East Broad Street downtown. Suspect Donterris Gresham, accused of running over Zarse while racing, was acquitted because a prosecutor could not convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that Gresham was behind the wheel. However, the ADA who prosecuted that case was a holdover from former district attorney Ken Mauldin’s administration, not one hired by Gonzalez.

There were few holdovers from the Mauldin era when Gonzalez took office, though, which Gonzalez attributed to acting DA Brian Patterson telling them all they would be fired. Patterson—Mauldin’s chosen successor—lost in the first round of a three-person race in November 2020 after Gonzalez had to go to court to even hold the election. She defeated another of Mauldin’s prosecutors, James Chafin, in a December 2020 runoff.

But that was not the first exodus from Gonzalez’s office. All in all, 35 prosecutors have resigned, according to records obtained by Epps—the equivalent of every position turning over twice in just over two years. At the Mar. 8 town hall meeting, Gonzalez blamed Mayor Kelly Girtz and ACC Manager Blaine Williams for the county not paying enough to compete with other jurisdictions or private practices. The county is conducting a salary study for attorneys employed by ACC.

District attorneys’ offices nationwide are dealing with staffing shortages. But surrounding circuits are not having as much of a problem as the Western Circuit, the Oconee Enterprise reported.

“There is no question that pay is an issue statewide for ADAs,” said Randy McGinley, DA for the Alcovy Circuit, which includes Walton and Newton counties. “Some metro Atlanta offices created new pay scales in the last year that drastically increased salaries for their ADAs… Attorneys are passing the bar and within three months getting paid over $100,000 a year to prosecute cases in a metro Atlanta office. And this does not address the pay difference between being an ADA and being in private practice. It is even more extreme.” 

Gonzalez’s relationship with law enforcement agencies is also an issue. Epps’ trove of documents includes an exchange in which Gonzalez defended herself against former ACCPD chief Cleveland Spruill, and a letter from Sgt. Scott Prah expressing his “absolute disgust” with the way the DA’s office handled a case in which a man secretly photographed women and posted their images to porn websites. Avery Pendergraph received a 50-year sentence in Troup County, but just 10 years running concurrently in Clarke

At her recent town hall meeting, Gonzalez described her relationship with Oconee County Sheriff James Hale as “cordial” and “respectful,” and said she is working with new ACCPD Chief Jerry Saulters on prosecuting gang crimes. Some other law enforcement figures haven’t been so respectful of Gonzalez, though. Former Oconee sheriff Scott Berry took to social media to wonder if the “woke” DA is “normalizing sex with children.” One critic at Gonzalez’s town hall meeting wanted to know if she had taken campaign contributions from George Soros, the liberal billionaire who factors into numerous right-wing conspiracy theories.

Staffing issues aside, the level of vitriol leveled against Gonzalez gives credence to her claims that attacks on her are politically motivated. The sponsor of a bill that would let just 2% of registered voters trigger a recall election for DAs and DAs alone—Rep. Houston Gaines (R-Athens)—lost to Gonzalez in a 2017 special election before taking the seat from her in 2018. When Gonzalez was elected DA, he explored the idea of splitting off Oconee County into its own circuit.

This is not Epps’ first time in the news. He twice sued Athens-Clarke County seeking to overturn coronavirus restrictions, once on behalf of downtown bar owners over last call, and another time seeking to have future Republican U.S. Rep. Andrew Clyde’s gun store declared an “essential business.” In 2016 he also represented Athens bar owners in an effort to overturn a state law aimed at curbing underage drinking.

Epps told WGAU’s Tim Bryant that, while anyone can lose a case, his main issue with Gonzalez is that she has been dropping serious cases involving things like meth trafficking. “We believe that the situation is so urgent at the prosecutor’s office that there’s no time to wait until the next election [in 2024],” Epps said.

In a written statement provided to media outlets, Gonzalez cast the latest “attack on my office” as a broader, politically motivated attack on progressive prosecutors throughout the country who “pursue smart justice that moves away from the failed ‘tough on crime’ strategies of the past.”

Gonzalez continued, “They have nothing to do with making our communities safer and everything to do with deflecting attention away from our refusal to seriously address the causes of crime.

“My community elected me based on my promise for a safer and more just future. I will always strive to be better in implementing new approaches, and I am proud of the work our office does every day, fighting for victims and a more just legal system. I will continue to hold myself accountable to my community and resist efforts to strip them of the leadership they have duly elected to carry out this job.”