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:
"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.
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 of the current system that perpetuate systemic racism, mass incarceration, and the school-to-prison pipeline.
I quote from West Virginia DA Dehghani-Tafti who said: “not every problem needs to be criminalized; not every crime has to lead to punishment; not every punishment has to result in incarceration; and not every instance of incarceration has to be so punitive that it makes no room for rehabilitation.”
“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” (Abraham Maslow, 1966)
Service to the community is what has driven my public engagement for the last four years. Service to the community will be the focus of my tenure as DA. You know me. You know what I have done for this community. You saw how I served as your State Representative. You know that I am a person of my word. You know that I will devote all my time and effort as DA to make this a more fair and just legal system that treats everyone with dignity, supports equal opportunity for everyone, and combats the long-term inequities that are rife within the current legal system.
As I conclude, I’d like to remind you, the voter, that I do not have years in a failing, inefficient and ineffective system. I do not have years in a good ole boys network. I do not have years working in a punitive system that perpetuates systemic racism.
Unlike my opponents, I’ll be fearless in the fight for your rights to justice. I’m not afraid to
acknowledge and address the issues that help injustice to flourish. I’ll be fair and promote policies that work for all of us equally. We can reduce crime, we can end the school to prison pipeline, we can revive the true mission of the criminal justice system, we can finally provide real support for victims, and we CAN promote fairness and justice for every person in this community. The district attorney seat belongs to the people and I intend to fight for a system that reflects our values.
It’s time for a real change – it’s time for real justice. You can find more information at
www.deborahforda.com. I look forward to serving as your next DA when you vote for Justice, when you
vote for me Deborah Gonzalez. Justice is on the ballot. Thank you.
You should be able to trust that your District Attorney can get the job done — whether that job is implementing criminal justice reform or empaneling a jury before the start of a murder trial.
I have the proven experience to do both.
As a Democrat, I’m proud of the legacy of reform we have started in this community. Athens-Clarke and Oconee are head and shoulders above our peers. In fact, we’ve become a state and national model for how we’ve improved nonviolent sentencing here.
But I know there’s more work to do. Reform isn’t one and done or a box to be checked. It’s commitment.
My promise to you is that I have the experience, dedication and passion to bring about even more meaningful reform. I also promise to treat everyone justly, fairly and equally because everyone deserves dignity and respect.
In fact, I’ve proven this to be true for the past 18 years. During that time, I have served as a prosecutor in the District Attorney’s Office, working every day to serve and protect the people of Athens-Clarke and Oconee Counties.
It is vitally important to me that we continue to innovate and improve upon all facets of our criminal justice system.
Since 2007, I have served as the Chief Assistant District Attorney, and now Acting District Attorney. In that leadership role, I have been responsible for supervising 39 employees, including 17 Assistant District Attorneys, prosecuting complex, high profile crimes (including murder and public corruption), coordinating all appellate litigation and developing budgetary priorities.
Prosecuting criminal cases and leading a prosecutor’s office are not abstract concepts to me. I have personally tried more than 100 felony and misdemeanor trials to a jury verdict, and I have litigated over 150 appeals in Georgia’s appellate courts. I routinely interface with crime victims and their families, witnesses, law enforcement, judicial officers, experts, corrections and community stakeholders.
Every day, I live my oath to uphold and defend our laws and the Georgia and Federal Constitutions. I have fought for the rights of crime victims, giving them a voice in the court process, while respecting the Constitutional and due process rights of accused persons.
The experience I bring to the job is important in the courtroom, but it’s just as important when it comes to bringing real, substantive criminal justice reform.
A “one size fits all” approach to our criminal justice system, typically seen as probation or confinement, does not work.
Most persons who come into contact with the court system do not pose a significant risk to people and property in our community. Many struggle with drug, alcohol and/or mental health challenges and issues.
As a progressive Democrat, I understand how important it is to differentiate between those people who are repeat and/or violent offenders from those individuals who have simply made a mistake in judgment.
I’m proud of the work we’ve done with our drug court program, our mental health court program, our veteran’s court program and our pretrial diversion program.
We can’t afford to throw out what is already working in our community. And the list of what’s working is a long one:
We use a local diversion center as well as a day reporting center to focus on rehabilitation, thereby reducing incarceration and recidivism in a manner that is cost effective; We have also prioritized crimes against women and children through a Special Victim’s Unit, and focused on the treatment, rehabilitation and supervision of juvenile offenders; We’ve combated criminal street gangs; We’ve devoted resources to reviewing all cold case homicides with an eye toward solvability.
What happens in our criminal courts is not entertainment.
The decision whether or not to prosecute someone for a crime is an awesome responsibility. The role of the prosecutor is that of a minister of justice, and the prosecutor ensures that all persons are treated fairly, justly and impartially while being afforded procedural due process. Every person arrested and charged with a crime is presumed innocent, and the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt based on admissible, persuasive evidence rests with the prosecutor.
These core principles are at the heart of our criminal justice system, and ones that I have
applied on a day-to-day basis for over 18 years. You have my promise and commitment that I will faithfully exercise my experience, leadership and discretion in serving as your next District Attorney.
I am asking for your support in this crucial, public endeavor by voting for me on or before November 3.