ATLANTA — When a north Georgia mother learned the man accused of raping her 14-year-old daughter was arrested and indicted by a grand jury, she thought a trial would come soon after. More than six years after the alleged crime, there’s no court date in sight.
"I had no idea at that point that, all these years later, that we would have so many trial dates that had been canceled," she told Channel 2 Action News and our investigative partners at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and AJC.com. "Every time we get our hopes up to get some release from the past and to be able to move on, you know, it's always a setback."
A setback because the man accused of her child’s rape hired Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston to be his lawyer. Since then Ralston has delayed the rape case at least eight times because he said he’s too busy to go to court, according to court documents.
A Channel 2 Action News / Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation revealed that the victim's mother is one of several Georgians who said they are fed up because Ralston frequently uses a century-old state law that excuses him from court if his legislative duties conflict with his court schedule.
Through a spokesperson, Ralston declined Channel 2’s and the AJC’s request for an interview and requests to review his legislative calendar. By email he said legislative leave protects the independence of the legislative branch.
Victims said they believe Ralston uses the legislative leave law to intentionally delay criminal cases.
“I think Mr. Ralston knows exactly what he’s doing,” the north Georgia mother said.
Another Ralston client is David Shell, who is accused of assaulting Jydon Carpenter in 2014. Shell has been arrested for domestic violence at least four previous times.
“Right now, I just want closure,” Carpenter said.
Blairsville resident Ted Harrison said his neighbor threatened to kill his family during a 2016 backyard barbecue. Harrison called police when the man showed up in his driveway with a gun. Court dates have been delayed in his criminal case at least 10 times because Ralston said he had conflicting legislative duties. Three of those court dates were to revoke the man’s bond because he has since been arrested for other crimes.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” Harrison said. He has installed several home security cameras to protect his family from the neighbor. Harrison said he fears the man could be dangerous.
Georgia's legislative session lasts 40 days, so typically state lawmakers keep their day jobs. The legislative leave law was created to give legislators who are attorneys by trade flexibility so they could attend to state business. Channel 2 Action News and the AJC found more than 20 criminal cases in which Ralston asked judges for continuances at least 55 times in the past two years citing the legislative leave law. Ralston said he was busy on legislative business for 75 days outside of the legislative session in 2017 and 2018.
“I don’t want this to be over just for closure for myself, but I want to make sure it doesn’t happen to someone else,” Carpenter said. “It’s very apparent that he cannot handle doing both jobs."
Ralston refused to talk on camera, but did email a statement through a spokesperson:
“Legislative leave (OCGA 9-10-150 & OCGA 17-8-26) is a long-established provision of Georgia law which recognizes the unique needs of a citizen-legislature and protects the independence of the legislative branch of state government. Like other members of the General Assembly, I utilize this provision outside of the legislative session, when necessary, to attend to my legislative duties as both a state representative and Speaker of the House. I’m honored to serve the members of the House of Representatives and to be one of 236 citizen-legislators serving our great state. I appreciate that I’m not the only one who must balance the responsibilities of my profession and my elected office.”
Ralston and his spokesperson refused to release his legislative calendar and did not answer questions about the more than 75 dates outside of the legislative session he asked for legislative leave in 2017 and 2018. Georgia lawmakers made themselves exempt from Georgia’s Open Records Act.
“You can pretty much find on any day with so much legislative staff, especially per capita, you could find an excuse,” said David LaBahn, president and CEO of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys in Washington. “If it wasn’t a public event I think it becomes a little more difficult for them to explain why they didn’t come to court.”
LaBahn said long delays can cripple a prosecutor’s case.
“The more it’s delayed, the more likely memories get lost or forgotten, witnesses change or disappear,” LaBahn said, and two years is the longest it should take most criminal cases to go to trial. “At some point that balance has to switch and focus a little bit on the public safety as well as what you’re doing to the victim community.”
The mother of the north Georgia rape victim fears the case against the man who is accused of attacking her daughter will weaken as time goes on.
“It’s incredibly, incredibly frustrating,” she said. “I want the truth to come out. and I want the whole truth, not bits and pieces of it.”
She said there is no doubt in her mind the delay is intentional.
An AJC reporter spoke to David Shell, the man accused of assaulting Jydon Carpenter, by phone. Shell said he knew Ralston’s legislative duties would keep him out of court. Shell told the reporter “that’s why I gave him 20,000 bucks... he’s worth every penny of it.”
This is not the first time Channel 2 Action News has investigated these complaints against Ralston. Read our investigations dating back to 2012:
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