By Joe Johnson
An Athens child sex trafficking case from last year was dismissed this week by a Superior Court judge due to prosecutors failing to grant the defendant’s demand for a speedy trial.
According to an order filed Thursday, Judge Lisa Lott dismissed the case against 25-year-old Nicholas Eduardo Fernandez, who had faced charges of trafficking of person for sexual servitude, statutory rape, kidnapping, false imprisonment and aggravated child molestation.
The case hadn’t been brought to trial under the speedy trial statute because of prosecutorial mismanagement, according to the director of external affairs for Western Judicial Circuit District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez.
“There was a timing mistake made by the prosecutor, as well as a scheduling error on the judge’s calendar,” Jenna Vaisvil said. “As a result of the speedy trial motion, that resulted in this outcome.”
She noted that the prosecutor to whom the case had been assigned, Alex McQueen, no longer worked for the DA’s office.
“We are extremely disappointed with this outcome and policy changes have taken place to make sure this mistake is not repeated going forward.” Vaisvil said.
According to court records and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Fernandez was a student when arrested at the University of Georgia in August 2021.
He and a co defendant allegedly trafficked for sex a 14-year-old girl who was missing from her home in Cook County, GA, by first taking the girl to Athens and then to the co-defendant’s home in Maryland, where authorities found her in a crawlspace, records show.
A grand jury indicted Fernandez on Nov. 16, 2021.
Lott stated in her dismissal order that under state law, the DA’s office had the January and April 2022 terms of the court to try the case, but after the second term ended on July 10, prosecutors reindicted the case three months later in what the judge called "an attempt to extend the time in which the defendant’s demand for a speedy trial can be met.”
The judge noted that the case had been scheduled for trial on Feb. 21, five days after she granted the DA’s Office more time to reindict due to prosecutors not being ready.
The case was reindicted on Nov. 16, 2021, and three months later, on Jan. 9 of this year, Athens defense attorney Ryan Swingle filed the motion demanding a speedy jury trial.
In granting Swingle’s subsequent motion to dismiss, Lott wrote in her order that “when the State reindicted Defendant, the speedy trial period had already expired. Thus, the State had no ability to go forward at any point in time during the second case."
The dismissed charges alleged that Fernandez and a co-defendant were involved in having the 14-year-old girl from Cook County taken to Athens then to a location in Maryland, where the co-defendant lived.
Charges against co-defendant Brady Hart were dropped in September when the DA’s Office filed a motion to dismiss because a review of the evidence determined that the alleged crimes were committed in Oconee County, not in Athens.
Though cases against Fernandez and Hart were dismissed in Clarke County, charges against both remain pending in other jurisdictions.