By R.J. RICO for the Associated Press
ATLANTA (AP) — A metro Atlanta prosecutor announced Friday that her office is withdrawing from criminal cases tied to protests over plans to build a police and firefighter training center, citing disagreements with the state’s Republican attorney general, including the decision to charge a legal observer with domestic terrorism.
DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston’s decision means Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr will have sole oversight regarding more than 40 additional cases connected to the “Stop Cop City” movement. Previously, the two offices held joint jurisdiction over those cases, Boston, a Democrat, said in a news release.
“It is clear to both myself and to the attorney general that we have fundamentally different prosecution philosophies,” Boston told WABE-FM.
Over the past seven months, more than 40 people have been charged with domestic terrorism in connection with violent protests. Fireworks and rocks have been thrown at officers and police vehicles and construction equipment have been torched. The Georgia statute, which had been rarely employed prior to December, carries a sentence of between five and 35 years behind bars.
Protesters argue that the charges are overblown — none of those arrested have been accused of injuring anyone — and meant to scare off others from joining the movement against the $90 million training center.
In a statement, Carr said his office is “fully committed to moving forward with the prosecution of those who have engaged in or supported violent acts surrounding the Public Safety Training Center.”
City officials say the new 85-acre (34-hectare) campus would replace inadequate training facilities and would help address difficulties in hiring and retaining police officers that worsened after nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice three years ago.
But demonstrators argue that the site will exacerbate environmental damage and be a staging ground for militarized officers to be trained in quelling social movements.
In an on-air interview with WABE’s Rose Scott, Boston said she and the attorney general’s office “had some differences … about who should be charged and what they should be charged with.”
Boston said she had concerns with the prosecution of Thomas Jurgens, a Southern Poverty Law Center staff attorney. Jurgens was one of 23 people charged with domestic terrorism March 5 after more than 150 masked protesters stormed a construction site, torching equipment while throwing projectiles at fleeing officers. Protesters were arrested more than an hour later about three-quarters of a mile (1.2 kilometers) away after they retreated to a nearby music festival that was filled with other activists.
Jurgens was wearing a bright green hat — a well-known identifier for legal observers — and his arrest alarmed many human rights organizations. The law center called it an example of “heavy-handed law enforcement intervention against protesters.”
“That was one of the touch points of a number of touch points that ultimately led me to make (this) decision,” Boston said of Jurgens’ arrest. “I will only proceed on cases that I believe that I can make beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Defense attorneys of those others arrested at the music festival have questioned the evidence behind the charges, noting errors in the near-identical arrest warrants.
During bond hearings, prosecutors have admitted that they have struggled to specifically identify many of the suspects among the crowd of masked protesters, though they insist that wet, muddy clothes proved they had traipsed through the woods and crossed a nearby creek after attacking the construction site.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund called on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate officials’ “apparent targeting of individuals who oppose Cop City.”
“Today’s decision … deepens our serious concern about whether these arrests have been motivated by something other than an impartial and objective evaluation of the evidence or a just exercise of prosecutorial discretion,” the organization said in a news release.
Boston told WABE that she hopes Carr will proceed appropriately when it comes to prosecuting those who deserve to be charged.
“There’s absolutely been destruction and violence, but how you approach all of these cases needs to be approached individually — every case, individually,” she said.