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Clarke/Oconee DA candidates make closing arguments on eve of election

Three candidates have been campaigning to become the next district attorney for the Western Judicial Circuit, which includes Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties. The candidates are two Democrats, acting District Attorney Brian Patterson and Deborah Gonzalez, a private attorney and former Georgia state representative, and nonpartisan candidate Deputy Chief Assistant James Chafin. With early voting already underway and election day one week away, Classic City News offered each candidate the opportuity to make closing arguments to voters, much as they would to jurors at the end of a trial. In alphabetical order, the candidates responded as follows:

James Chafin

"I do swear that I will faithfully and impartially and without fear, favor, or

affection discharge my duties as district attorney and will take only my lawful

compensation. So help me God."

This is the oath you take when you become District Attorney. As the District Attorney, you cannot be partial to any political party or to any agenda – you have to be fair and just regardless of political affiliation. That is why I am running as the only non-partisan candidate. I believe a District Attorney should be elected based on their commitment to serve the

public with integrity, not the political party they belong to. The truth is politics has

nothing to do with the everyday work that goes on in the District Attorney’s office. We prosecute cases and the District Attorney is the top prosecutor in the circuit. We don’t make laws; we enforce them in a fair and just way. We don’t lobby in Atlanta; we present evidence and facts to jurors in our community. We are not politicians; we are fact finders trying to get to the truth in a case.

In order to execute the duties of this job, you have to have experience. Why does

experience matter? Why can’t the first time you handle a criminal case be as the

District Attorney? Prosecuting cases has a lot of facets to it – including assessing

cases, deciding what crimes to charge or if to charge a crime at all, determining

what evidence is admissible at trial, working with victims to make sure they

receive justice, investigating a case further, coming up with a fair resolution for

charges, taking advantage of alternative sentencing in making plea recommendations, trying a case if it isn’t resolved, handling the case on appeal, and even arguing a conviction should be upheld in front of the Court of Appeals or Supreme Court.  These are skills you learn over time and get better at, just as with any profession. You cannot perform these duties if you have never done them before; you cannot uphold the law if you don’t know the law.

But experience is important for another reason. It’s important because of what it tells us.  Past performance in a job is a predictor of future behavior.  I have been trying cases for 21 years and 14 of those years have been right here in the Western Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office. That is 14 years of reviewing cases, investigating them, working with victims, making fair plea offers, and trying cases.

You know how I will be as your District Attorney because I have a 14-year record to look

back on.  I’m not just saying what I am going to do – I have shown you.  If you have never tried a criminal case or worked in law enforcement – then we have no record to review, nothing to determine what you will actually do in the job. 

What does my record look like? I have tried over 100 jury trials in my career. I

have served this community faithfully since 2006 as an Assistant District Attorney.

I have worked my way up, learning and gaining years of experience to prepare me

for this day. I have tried some of the most difficult and darkest cases that our

community has ever seen. I have worked with countless survivors of violent

crime. I have given them a voice in front of juries in courtrooms for years. I have

listened to them as they describe the worst experiences of their lives. I have

stood by those survivors as they found the courage to stand up and face the

people that have harmed them.

Of course, this job is not just trying the cases; it is also teaching and evaluating others to do the work too. I have mentored new prosecutors to help them develop the skills they need to do this very challenging job. I have been teaching others how to try cases for more than a decade.

I know the challenge of the job and I can step in and step up on day one. I am not the best candidate just because of my experience but also because of my commitment to improving this community. I believe that we can do more in the District Attorney’s Office. I have seen the impact that the criminal justice system has on our young people, our families and our community. I believe we should expand pretrial diversion programs to keep first time offenders out of court and help them learn the tools they need so that they are unlikely to reoffend.

I believe we need to continue to focus on our treatment courts to help those who struggle with addiction, mental health, and poverty. A youth offender program would allow non-violent youthful offenders to improve their life stills and keep them out of the justice system.

Finding the balance between holding people accountable for their decisions while working with them to get help and give them the resources they need to make better choices in the future is a worthwhile endeavor. We have seen the fruits of that labor and we need to

continue to invest in these programs and invest in the people who will benefit from them.

I also believe the District Attorney should be proactive and not just reactive. Criminal street gangs have become a problem. We need to eradicate them. By engaging children early and often within the school system we can show our youth there is a better course for their life than falling prey to gangs that recruit at a very early age. Finally, I believe we need to offer workshops to first-time, non-violent offenders so they can begin the process of removing first-time offenses from their records, leading them to clean records, better jobs, and

reduced chances of getting in trouble again.

Before voters make up their mind, they need to fast forward to January 4, 2021.

That will be the first day in office for our newly elected District Attorney. It is also

a trial week for the District Attorney’s office. The next week is also a trial week.

So is the week after that. Cases will be going to trial almost every single week for

all of 2021. With the pandemic that affected so many, most citizens do not realize that the Supreme Court of Georgia stopped all jury trials for the entire state in March. No one in the entire state has had their day in court since then.

This ban, however, is being lifted and the District Attorney’s office will be called to

stand ready to present numerous cases to the community. There will be no waiting. There will be no time available to learn on the job. The District Attorney and the District Attorney’s staff will immediately be called on to do the job that is required under Georgia law. They will be called on to try the most serious cases that have been committed in our community on the very first day the new District Attorney takes office.

If elected, I am ready to answer that call. I’d like you to consider what will happen to our community, the victims within it, if the District Attorney cannot try a case. Our community deserves better. I believe a true leader never asks anyone to do something that the leader cannot do. When the most serious offenses happen in our community, the community

expects to see the District Attorney front and center in the courtroom. As District Attorney, I will try these cases; I will represent this community with the upmost integrity. I will continue to keep this community safe as I have done over the last 14 years.

Being your District Attorney is something I have been working for my entire career, not a stepping stone to another political position. If you believe that the District Attorney should be selected based on experience, credibility and a commitment to the public trust, I would ask for your vote on November 3rd.

Debora Gonzalez

I’m Deborah Gonzalez. I am an attorney of over 20 years, a mother, and an advocate for social justice. I am the former state representative for House District 117 (Athens, Oconee, Barrow and Jackson counties).

I am running for DA because I know our community is tired of the status quo and is ready for

bold criminal justice reform to not only bring fair and equitable justice to our community, but to keep Athens-Clarke and Oconee Counties safe. Our community has changed over the past 48 years and new technologies and options are available, such as the expansion of diversion and accountability programs to make them available to the poor and to more people generally, to move beyond the focus on prosecution and incarceration as the only response to public well-being. But these new public safety tools require a leader with a fresh perspective and the backbone to take an inclusive and expansive approach to implementing reforms and see that they are utilized for the benefit of the entire community in a way that is both effective and efficient.

I have experience in policy, building expert teams, and achieving beneficial results for the people of my community. I will do so with heart and compassion for everyone in our community – victims, defendants, their families, and the entire community.

I am not a career prosecutor and during these turbulent times in our country, that is a good thing. The DAs in the Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd cases were all career prosecutors, and no one will say justice was done in those cases. That is not what our community wants or needs. What it needs is leadership to a way forward.

Through my leadership, 150,000 voters in Athens and Oconee got their right to vote back after the Governor cancelled the DA election. The Governor’s office actually opposed allowing us, the people of Clarke and Oconee Counties, to have an election for District Attorney. The GA Supreme Court was both unanimous and quick in deciding that I was right to challenge this cancellation and gave me and the people a decisive unanimous victory. My opponents did nothing. Their silence about having this election tells you what you need to know about them. Not only is our election safe, but all of your votes cast for DA are safe and will be counted. I didn’t wait for someone else to do something. I did it myself. This is the commitment and determination that I will bring to the DA office.

My opponents argue that my lack of prosecutorial experience is disqualifying, claiming that only they have the experience needed to do the job. If they choose to run on that experience, then they must also own the record of that experience.

Let’s examine that nearly two-decade record. In Athens-Clarke, male African-American minors, black boys, make up 13% of the general population. However, they make up 49% of the juvenile justice cases! How do you explain that? I submit that there are only two possible explanations: (1) There is a racial bias in our legal system, what we all term “systemic racism”; or (2) black boys are 3-4x as “bad” as white boys. Which is it? Does the current DA office really want to argue the latter?

This “experience” is not delivering justice. You cannot fight systemic racism if you don’t admit that it exists.

My opponents are using fear-mongering to suggest that a DA office under my direction will not keep the public safe. Public safety is one of the main missions of law enforcement, including the DA office, and I assure you that my DA office will continue to prosecute and hold accountable those who commit violent crimes to keep the community safe. The office will be staffed with first-class prosecutors who understand the mission of the office and will fulfill the office’s responsibilities to the community.

The difference is that this should and will be only a part of the DA’s mission, whereas currently it is the

predominant mission. This reflects a misconception of what a DA does. My DA office will focus on fair

and just treatment of everyone in the community and look to preventive initiatives (e.g., diversion

programs, community outreach), alternatives to prosecution (e.g., accountability courts, co-responders,

treatment programs), and restorative justice, while eliminating the aspects