Fulton DA says police shooting cases to be resolved by year’s end

Fulton DA says police shooting cases to be resolved by year’s end

May 10, 2021
by Christian Boone | The Atlanta Journal-Constitution | May 7, 2021

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who took office in January after soundly defeating her former boss, Paul Howard, said her office is making progress in tackling a massive backlog of roughly 11,000 cases.

That includes resolving a slew of officer-involved shootings, some dating back as far as 2016. Those cases have been in limbo ever since, leaving both the officers who fired the fatal shots and the families of the victims anxiously awaiting to hear whether criminal charges will be filed.

Willis said she has asked her Anti-Corruption Unit to make charging decisions on all such cases from 2016 to 2018 by the end of this year. They include the deaths of Jamarion Robinson, shot at 76 times inside his girlfriend’s East Point apartment in August 2016 by a fugitive task force made up of local law enforcement and federal authorities; and Deaundre Phillips, shot in January 2017 outside an Atlanta police annex by a plainclothes officer who had questioned him about allegedly smoking marijuana.

Willis broke the news Friday during a meeting with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s editorial board. She discussed a wide range of issues, from Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ bombshell announcement Thursday not to seek re-election to the rise in crime in Atlanta to the overcrowding of the Fulton County Jail.

“The voters and God hand-selected me for this very special time,” Willis said. “We have done amazing things in less than five months in office.”

Targeting gangs has been a top priority, the new DA said. Earlier this week she announced a 105-count indictment against 12 alleged members of the Bloods, including rapper YFN Lucci. She said more gang indictments are forthcoming.

“They are at every level, the sex trafficking, the car thefts, the violence,” Willis said. “We have had people in denial (about a gang problem). I am not in denial. I’m putting a tremendous amount of resources here. I am going to be, to those who are committing violent crimes, their worst nightmare.”

Crime, said Willis, will be a decisive issue in what looks to be a wide-open mayor’s race now that Bottoms has decided not to seek a second term.

“This city needs a leader who is committed to a lot of the problems we’ve been seeing,” she said. “We’ve seen an enormous spike in crime so we need a strong leader in that role.”

The Atlanta Police Department “needs help,” said Willis, endorsing Fulton Sheriff Pat Labat’s plan to put 200 deputies on the street.

“We are having a spike not just in crime, we’re having a spike in violent crime which as a prosecutor and a member of the community is concerning to me,” she said.

Willis attracted national headlines in February when she announced she was looking into alleged election fraud by former President Donald Trump and some of his closest allies. The investigation centers on a Jan. 2 phone call to Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in which Trump pleaded with him to “find” enough votes to overturn his narrow defeat in the state.

Critics say Willis should focus on local cases.

“I don’t get the option of looking the other way,” she said. “If someone came into this jurisdiction and interfered with our citizens’ right (to vote), I’m going to look at it.”

Willis declined to disclose any details about the investigation.

It’s also unclear if her office will prosecute recently reinstated APD Officer Garrett Rolfe, charged by Willis’ predecessor with murder in the June 2020 shooting death of Rayshard Brooks.

Willis sought recusal, saying Howard’s handling of the case created a conflict of interest. But Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, in a virtually unprecedented move, denied her attempt to withdraw, saying any conflicts are Howard’s alone.

A ruling on Willis’ recusal bid is expected soon from Fulton Superior Court Court Chief Judge Christopher Brasher.

“This is all extremely peculiar,” Willis said. “Judges aren’t usually in the business of telling a prosecutor whether they’re appropriate. The process that is happening now is not a process I can explain because it just doesn’t happen.”

Whoever gets the case faces a significant challenge, Willis told the AJC.

“I believe that case has layers of problems because of the way it was inappropriately handled,” she said. “In my opinion it’s unfair to everyone involved. And it has made things difficult for whoever ends up ultimately with that case.”

Here was the DA’s take on a variety of other issues raised during the editorial board meeting:

On dealing with Atlanta’ s “water boys,”: “We absolutely need these children to have something else to do. I do believe there are older teenagers and young adult who, for lack of a better word, are pimping them. They are utilizing them to commit acts of violence. It is an activity we now have to stop.”

On a movement to make Buckhead a city, separate from Atlanta: “I like Buckhead being a part of Atlanta. I consider them to be a part of my community. I understand their frustration. It is not fair to the citizens of Buckhead that we have violence going on at Lenox Mall. But it’s also not fair at Greenbriar Mall.

On overcrowding at Fulton County Jail: “We do not have enough jail space. Sheriff Labat needs a new jail. We know we need 500 new beds. Let’s stop pretending we don’t need 500 new beds.”

On how she defines herself: “There’s this whole wave of progressive prosecutors. I certainly have more progressive ideas than many people. I have started a unit that looks at old convictions. I just found someone who had been in jail 18 years for murder, found out it was inappropriate and released him. I’m the same prosecutor who just handed down a 105-count indictment against the Bloods. I don’t think these things are mutually exclusive.”

“What I am first is a prosecutor,” Willis said. “And I don’t have any shame about being a prosecutor.”