Updated: Mar 2, 2021
By Joe Johnson
A concerning number of prosecutors have resigned from the Western Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office since a new DA took office on the first of the year.
Court sources said that seven assistant district attorneys with an estimated total of more than 150 years of prosecutorial experience have resigned Since Jan. 1.
However, District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez, the top prosecutor for Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties, said that staff turnover in her office was to be expected after she became the circuit’s first new DA in 20 years, one with progressive ideas about the administration of justice.
After Classic City News Tuesday morning sent a list of questions to Gonzalez through David Lyle, who holds the newly-created position of the DA’s director of external affairs, Gonzalez late Tuesday afternoon issued the following statement to multiple media outlets:
“I ran for District Attorney for one reason: to bring about changes that will make our community safer. Change is never easy. It can be especially challenging in a situation where the change sought is significant and the status quo has been in place for decades.
“After my election, I took over an office that my predecessors had built to pursue very different goals than the voters chose me to achieve. In similar situations, some newly elected DAs have cleaned house. I instead took office with an open mind and met with every member of the existing staff. I told each of them that I was open to working with anyone who supported my goals. I also made very clear what those goals were by issuing a seven-page memo setting them out on my first day in office.
“In the weeks since then, several members of the staff have chosen to leave the office. As always, people make decisions of this kind for a variety of personal and professional reasons. I will not comment on any particular personnel situation. I wish each of these former employees, who have served the people of Clarke and Oconee Counties diligently and to the best of their abilities, the best in their future endeavors.
“I am aggressively recruiting and hiring new staff in key positions. In recent weeks, a new lead prosecutor for juvenile cases, who shares my vision of promoting a strong and safe community and ending the school-to-prison pipeline, has joined the office. In addition, I have hired a senior and experienced prosecutor who specializes in serious crimes involving special victims such as women and children from the Public Integrity Section of the Fulton County DA’s office.
“Because I am committed to delivering the highest possible level of support to victims and survivors of crime and their families, I am also pleased to have added a new Director of Victim Services who will be leading a strong team of victim advocates and social work interns.
“As the hiring process continues, this office will quickly return to its full complement of attorneys and other staff. In building this team, my goal is to make the people of Clarke and Oconee Counties safe.”
The statement did not address most questions CCN submitted, including:
* What is the number of allocated ADA positions in the Western Judicial Circuit?
*How many of those positions are currently filled?
* If there are so many vacant prosecutor positions, why is one of those positions being filled by an external affairs director?
* Why is there a need for an external affairs director?
* Is DA Gonzalez personally prosecuting cases, and if so, how many?
* Does the DA believe the resources to be provided by the Prosecuting Attorneys Council will be sufficient to offset the vacancies in her office?
In an attempt to address the shortage of prosecutors, Gonzalez on Feb. 25 sent a letter to the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia asking for help prosecuting a murder case in Oconee County that is scheduled to begin trial the week of March 22, and two cases in Athens-Clarke, one involving the attempted murder of a University of Georgia student and the other the sexual assault and murder of a woman. They are to begin trial the weeks of March 29 and April 5, respectively.
“To support your assistance, a junior ADA will serve as second chair, and the victim advocate and investigator already assigned to the case will continue to serve,” Gonzalez wrote. “Please confirm your acceptance of these cases and we can arrange for the swearing in and preparing the materials or resources you made need.”
The very same day the PAC received Gonzalez’s letter, the council’s deputy director told the DA that she will receive the requested assistance.
In it, Lalaine Briones told Gonzalez that the PAC will assign one of its staff attorneys and an investigator to the Oconee murder case, and four attorneys and two investigators will be assigned to the pending Athens-Clarke cases.