The Need for Prosecutorial Oversight

People are calling the Western Judicial Circuit, which mainly covers the Athens area, the The Western Judicial Circus.

When Debra Gonzalez took office as the newly elected District Attorney she announced that the office would no longer be seeking the death penalty, prosecuting marijuana laws, and essentially support the lightest sentencing possible for all sorts of crimes. She was praised as a progressive thinker and reformer as a result.

In Athens, Gonzalez’s victory is the latest in a string of progressive wins for local offices. A groundswell of grassroots organizing has helped elect progressive candidates to local office and made criminal justice reform a focal point.

The Appeal January 11, 2021

Since then, 80 percent of the staff who worked in the Western Judicial Circuit have bailed, with some citing the toxic culture that now exists as their reason for leaving. In an interview with 11 Alive, former Athens assistant district attorney, Alex Cidado, told reporters, “I left the office because of the toxic environment there and unfortunately the belief that I could not do my full duty and hold up my oath,” He went on to describe sessions where Gonzalez would go over his case load and tell him to not prosecute cases he felt like needed to be adjudicated.

Debra Gonzales had never tried a case in criminal court before getting elected as the DA. The lack of knowledge led to a lack of confidence in her leadership and her ability to guide attorneys on her staff through difficult cases. And the resulting parade of incompetence is both chilling and maddening.

In the case of Sanchez Smith, who was accused of shooting another man in the neck, Gonzalez failed to take the case to a grand jury and filed the wrong legal process with the court. The charges were dismissed on a technicality.

When Gonzalez filed a motion to delay the murder trial of Quatravis Hull and David Richard she told the judge a witness wasn’t available and forensic testing needed to be completed before she could go to trial. In the hearing about that proposed delay, it was found that the test results were already given to her office and that she had never subpoenaed the witness in question.

And then there are the failed murder prosecutions, such as the case of Willie Tremaine Nickholas Evans. Evans beat murder charges, but Gonzalez was able to get a plea deal on separate but connected charges. True to her campaign promise, she didn’t send him to jail and let him go free. He is now facing separate murder charges in Hall county for killing 19 year old, Joshua Wick, not even two years later.

Gonzalez has blamed a lack of money for her woes, saying there are only 5 positions on her staff filled when the office needs 17. She says attorneys leave her office for higher paying gigs. But 11 Alive looked at other counties and the salaries are close to those in similar offices. Some offices only have two openings and pay less than the Western Circuit.

Debra Gonzalez is the poster child for the need for prosecutorial oversight. Having never prosecuted a case until this year, unwilling to recognize that her job is to enforce the law and not make it, lacking a basic understanding of criminal process, and unable to make her assistant DA’s feel supported have combined to create the justification of SB 92, which Governor Kemp signed into law earlier today.

The newly minted law will establish a commission that will have the power to discipline DA’s for failing to do their job. Penalties may vary, but can also reach a level where the DA is removed from office.

There was a time a law like this would not be necessary. But the people of Athens Clark County are suffering under obvious incompetence and worse, an unwillingness to perform the basic duties of the office. And people are literally getting away with murder.

SB 92 was sponsored in the Senate by one of Peach Pundit’s favorite Senators, Randy Robertson, and carried in the House by Representative Joseph Gullett (who is a certified rock star). Another of Peach Pundit’s favorites, Rep. Houston Gaines of Athens has also been heavily involved for obvious reasons; his people are suffering.

If I were Debra Gonzalez, tonight, I’d be making future plans for how I was going to pay my mortgage. Because while the commission won’t meet for the first time until next year, her days as district attorney are numbered. And let her be an example to others who think being a DA is just a policy position and that they should not seek the DA job unless they actually are willing and able to do the job.

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