By Joe Johnson
One of the first trials to be prosecuted by the Western Judicial Circuit under Deborah Gonzalez, who in January became the first new district attorney in 20 years for Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties could be the case of a man who shot a University of Georgia student two years ago.
The case of 21-year-old Zarren Rasool Alexander Garner has been placed on Judge Lawton Stephens’ trial calendar for the week of April 26, though the judge was unsure if that case will be the first to be tried.
But if it is, an experienced team of prosecutors is in place to try Garner on charges of criminal attempt to commit murder, armed robbery, four counts of aggravated assault, criminal attempt to commit armed robbery and two counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony.
Former District Attorney Ken Mauldin had been the lead prosecutor, but Gonzalez was mainly an entertainment lawyer with no experience prosecuting criminal cases. Additionally, seven staff attorneys resigned after Gonzalez took office on Jan. 1.
That is why last month the new DA requested assistance from the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia, which allocated attorneys and investigators to handle pending cases in both Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties.
On March 4, two PAC attorneys filed formal appearances in the Garner case, and Western Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Eric Norris swore both in as special prosecutors.
They are Lalaine Briones, the PAC’s deputy director, and John A. Regan, the PAC’s gang resource prosecutor.
Together, the special prosecutors have nearly 40 years of courtroom experience.
The crimes Garner is accused of stem from an incident on April 22, 2019, when Athens-Clarke County police said Garner allegedly robbed at gunpoint a cellphone from a UGA student at Milledge Place Apartments.
A short time later, police said that Garner assaulted Tate Prezzano, a 22-year-old UGA junior and lacrosse player from Alpharetta while the student was waiting for a bus near his apartment in the 2100 block of South Milledge Avenue. Garner allegedly shot Prezzano multiple times in the head and neck area during an attempt to steal the victim’s Air Pods, according to police.
Garner, a Gwinnett County resident, was arrested the day after the shooting and robbery and has been detained at the Clarke County Jail ever since.
If the case goes forward, Garner's would be the first trial since Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton declared a Judicial emergency last March, suspending trials due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Citing a decline in the surge of COVID-19 cases, Melton this week announced that jury trials may resume “effective immediately.”