GWINNETT COUNTY, Ga. — Gwinnett County’s murder conviction rate fell below 60% in 2022 as the county’s top prosecutor is pushing back amid concerns with how cases have been prosecuted.
In 2022, as courts begin to recover from a pandemic-related backlog of cases, there were eight murder acquittals in Gwinnett County out of 21 murder trials. The Gwinnett County District Attorney’s office secured 12 convictions, for a conviction rate of 57%, according to data provided by the office.
In DeKalb County, 38 murder cases that went to trial resulted in an 87% conviction rate. In Fulton County, 31 murder cases went to trial with an 87% conviction rate. In Cobb, prosecutors secured a 100% conviction rate with eight convictions out of eight murder trials.
[DOWNLOAD: Free WSB-TV News app for alerts as news breaks]
Mistrials have not been included in the conviction rates since those cases will be retried.
“We don’t just try the easy cases, the slam dunk cases,” said Gwinnett County District Attorney Patsy Austin-Gatson. “The ones we’ve gotten acquittals on, we are dealing with that.”
Austin-Gatson, elected in 2020, told Channel 2′s Matt Johnson her team meets with jurors after every case. She attributes Gwinnett County’s diversity and a general interest in true crime reporting with a change in juror attitudes.
“They’re looking at things like that, different podcasts that claim people are innocent when they’re sitting in jail and have been previously convicted,” she said. “So they’re probably weighing those types of things, and we are mindful of that. We try to do what we can to make sure that all of the evidence is getting in front of them.”
She said some of the cases her team tried last year are older cases that can be more challenging.
Investigators on her team said jurors have also become more skeptical of police and government, even in cases where there was surveillance video.
“Some jurors believe that video can be manipulated,” said Andres Rodriguez, Assistant Chief Investigator. “That is very bothersome because we don’t do that.
Ultimately, Austin-Gatson said having eight murder acquittals is not a “failing” by her team.
“I didn’t run on convictions,” she said. “I’m bringing justice and equity and fairness to the situation.”
- 4 Mega Millions tickets worth $10,000 sold in Georgia as jackpot hits $1.35 BILLION
- Man kills daughter with special needs in murder-suicide, Forsyth deputies say
- Judge denies bond for Chrisleys looking to stay out of prison while they appeal conviction
Voters elected Austin-Gatson, a former Supervising Attorney in the Solicitor’s Office, after she ran a campaign that promised reforms to keep young people out of prison. She said she’s delivering on that promise, such as graduating 18 young people through the Rehabilitation Enables Dreams program.
Families still waiting for justice after an acquittal believe the system failed them.
In 2019, Derrick Dennis, 55, and Josh Dennis, 30, were shot and killed in Norcross in a murder that devastated their family. Then in 2022, a jury acquitted the defendant, Karlton Sirmons, even after police testified that he was found with the murder weapon two months later.
“I don’t get it,” said a relative of the victims who asked not to be identified. “That was my brother and that’s my nephew. I wanted justice served.”
She told Channel 2 Action News she was disappointed with how the case was prosecuted.
“Our attorney changed a couple of months before the trial even started so she didn’t really even know about the case,” she said. “She just wasn’t prepared.”
The victims’ relative recalls having to routinely speak with the prosecutor on the case.
“During recess, I had to come to her and ask, ‘Well can you say this?’ or ‘Can you say that?’ ‘Well, [the defense] came with this, so can you bring this up?’” she said. “And she’s like, ‘Okay, that’s a good point, we can do that.’ But I shouldn’t have had to do that.”
The defendant, Sirmons, was represented by defense attorney Lawrence Lewis who ultimately secured an acquittal for his client when the jury found him not guilty of murder.
[SIGN UP: WSB-TV Daily Headlines Newsletter]
The case ultimately came down to how the main witness was presented to the jury, according to Lewis.
“I don’t think the jury ultimately believed the witness,” said Lewis.
Lewis has been a defense attorney in Gwinnett County for 22 years and secured two murder acquittals last year. He says his experience in trial cases is a factor when presenting a case to a jury.
“I think that the people that were let go when the new administration came in had a had a lot more jury trial experience than a lot of the folks that were hired,” he said.
After Austin-Gatson took office in 2020, some of the more experienced prosecutors who stayed helped to train new staff.
“We have a young, fairly new staff, as well as a lot of new attorneys,” said Brandon Delfunt, Deputy Chief District Attorney. “And we’re going through that training process with them on encouraging them on how to present cases in new ways.”
In the meantime, Austin-Gatson says she’s investing in more technology to secure more forensic evidence at crime scenes that may help with homicide investigations. Her focus, also, is on outreach and debunking myths about the criminal justice system for any potential future jurors.
“We do have to continuously try and educate the public,” she said, “because they are going to be the people that sit on a jury.”
IN OTHER NEWS:
©2022 Cox Media Group