A bill to curtail unique grand jury privileges for police officers is before the Georgia Senate this month, possibly headed to a committee hearing as early as this week.
A group of citizens, including several affiliated with group seeking justice in the Caroline Small shooting case in Brunswick, believe there needs to be a special prosecutor assigned to police shooting cases. That issue arose in the Small case when questions about the local district attorneys actions arose following an Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News investigation last year.
Critics argue local district attorneys have an inherent conflict of interest when they have to prosecute police shooting cases because their office regularly relies on the police to prosecuted cases. The group pushing for the local prosecutor provision hopes the Senate will amend the bill to include a special prosecutor requirement.
"They are in court testifying on behalf of the district attorney on a day-to-day basis," said Jeff Kilgore, a political activist in Glynn County who has worked with the Justice for Caroline Small group. "It's a very close relationship. It's a clear conflict for the district attorney."
The proposal, HB 941, was drafted after negotiations by the state's prosecutors and law enforcement organizations with little to no input from citizens or activists concerned about the issue of police shootings.
It eliminates a provision of current law that allows officers facing an indictment to sit in t he grand jury, hear all the evidence against them and make a statement that can't be challenged.
Chuck Spahos, executive director of the Georgia Prosecuting Attorneys' Council, said the the 49 local district attorneys across Georgia oppose automatically turning police shooting cases over to a special outside prosecutor.
The district attorneys council believes it's the job of the local district attorney, who is elected, to consider all cases that fall in their jurisdiction. In cases where there is a conflict of interest, he said, current law and ethics rules allow for a special prosecutor to be appointed.
"We do oppose saying it is across the board a conflict," he said.
Kilgore, who's group has been working with lawmakers to try to get the provision put in the Senate bill, said the House bill, as it stands, doesn't go far enough.
"The bill does not address any of the problems we've seen in the case of Caroline Small," said Kilgore said.
The Small case was described by the GBI supervisor who oversaw the case as the worst police shooting he'd ever investigated, but the officers were cleared after DA Johnson took extraordinary steps and expressed concern the case would damage her office's relationship with the Glynn County Police Department.