Slew of prosecutor resignations raises concerns
CHATHAM COUNTY, Ga. (WTOC) - A slew of resignations at the Chatham County District Attorney’s Office is raising concerns.
In court, the issue has caused delays in major criminal cases, raised constitutional concerns for those charged with crimes, specifically their right to a speedy trial.
A WTOC Investigation has found there are half as many felony prosecutors today compared to before the COVID pandemic.
More than a dozen criminal defense attorneys and former prosecutors spoke about how the shortage of felony prosecutors is affecting the criminal justice system. One defense attorney, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the DA staffing issues are the worst he’s seen in 30 years.
Only a few of the attorneys agreed to give their name for publication, which they acknowledged could risk their professional relationship with the DA’s office. They said it was more important to bring the issues to light.
“It’s not an easy time to be a defense attorney,” said Jonah Pine, a criminal defense attorney in Savannah who has been practicing for 26 years. “There is a tremendous amount of turnover at the District Attorney’s Office - a lack of continuity and consistency.”
He, along with several others, said staff turnover is expected when a new DA takes office. Many lawyers also said the pandemic has made it more competitive to hire attorneys because of remote work opportunities.
“But it is having a very negative impact on my ability to do my job, the courts abilities to function,” said John Rodman, a criminal defense attorney in Savannah. He’s practiced for 15 years. “I mean, the courts are continuing cases because the District Attorney is coming and saying we don’t have the people to handle the case.”
Staff rosters from the DA’s Office going back three years show there has been a drastic drop in the number of felony prosecutors working in Chatham County.
WTOC Investigates compared staff rosters from 2020 to January of 2021 when the DA first took office to now. There’s been about a 35 percent drop in overall staff since District Attorney Shalena Cook Jones took office.
But the number of felony prosecutors is half what it was. In 2020, staff rosters from the DA’s office showed there were about 26 felony prosecutors. As of this week, there were 13 of them listed on the DA’s website.
Records show many of those who left resigned last year, and several of them went to work for another DA’s office in a neighboring circuit.
The exodus is having a profound impact on the courts and contributing to a backlog of criminal cases.
“They’ve got an entire superior courtroom up there with no prosecutor assigned to it,” Rodman said. “That’s like 700 something cases left unmanned listed as ADA pending. That’s unacceptable. That should never happen.”
The lingering felony criminal cases and growing backlogs doesn’t only affect victim’s families, but those who are accused of crimes, as Pine explained.
“But that person still, of course, is entitled to their day in court and if there’s no prosecutor there to prosecute the case, I just don’t know what else anybody can do,” he said.
The shortage of felony prosecutors is something WTOC Investigates has seen first-hand in court going back months. In a recent court filing asking for a continuance, Chief Felony Prosecutor Mike Edwards explained how the murder case had gone unassigned for months because several prosecutors who were assigned to the case had since departed. His last day with the DA’s Office, he wrote, was this past Friday.
Jones declined a request for an interview on this topic.
Chatham County Manager Michael Kaigler previously told WTOC the county is concerned about the backlog of cases and is working with the DA, the judges and courts to provide extra resources and staff to address it.
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