DA, solicitor face strong competition

By Ed Brock

The state's longest standing district attorney faces two challengers in Clayton County's race for the office.

And the county's incumbent solicitor general says he wants to "finish what we've started" while his competitor wants to bring in a new way of looking at the law, one that doesn't always involve prosecution.

District attorney's office

Clayton County District Attorney Bob Keller, 57, has held the office for 27 years. His challengers are attorneys Michael King and Jewell Scott.

Before becoming the district attorney in 1977, Keller was in private practice for three years and prior to that he had been an assistant district attorney for three years. A resident of Jonesboro, Keller said he's been practicing law since 1972 and he feels good about his sixth election.

"We feel very pleased with the support we've been getting from the community," Keller said. "I feel very good about our record of progressive leadership with innovative ways to protect the public and serve victims of crime. I'm very pleased that the people will make their decision based on the experience of the candidates."

One of Keller's top issues is to find alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders through pre-trial intervention programs.

"Based on my serving as co-chair of the governor's commission on sentencing Clayton County will have a day reporting center," Keller said.

The center will provide counseling and job skill training as well as treatment for drug offenders.

And Keller said that one of his pet projects is to provide a pre-trial diversion program in the county for youthful offenders.

"So that the youthful offender does not suffer for his or her entire life as a result of one mistake," Keller said.

Keller also said he wants to provide Clayton County residents with a safe environment and to use technology to increase the efficiency of the criminal justice system.

King is 49 and lives in College Park. Originally from Tallahassee, Fla., where he was a grade school teacher, King has been practicing law in Clayton County for the past 14 years.

In his practice, that includes criminal and civil law, he has tried 100 criminal cases and litigated over 1,000.

"I decided to run for office because I decided I was most qualified," King said.

For the last three weeks his staff of four to 12 people have knocked on around 1,800 doors to spread his message.

"We anticipate that before the election we'll reach more than 6,000 homes," King said. "The response I'm getting from the people has been very supportive."

King said he has a four-point plan for addressing what he thinks needs to be done when he's in office. He wants to improve the relationship between the district attorney's office and the community, protect the community from violent criminals, provide fair prosecution for criminal defendants and promote the rehabilitation of convicted criminals.

"Those are the things that people told me they'd like to see accomplished," King said.

As for the first point of his plan, King said he plans to go to churches, schools and social functions to teach the roles and responsibilities of the district attorney's office, and what the members of the community can do to fight crime.

"The relationship (between the district attorney's office and the community) may not be bad but the public perception of the district attorney's office may be more negative than positive," King said.

He also wants to use programs like his Michael B. King Spelling/Legal Bee, held every December of the past four years. The spelling/legal bee teaches young people legal terms.

To protect the community from violent crime, King said he would aggressively prosecute defendants in which there is probable cause that they are guilty of violent crimes and then make sure they receive the most severe penalty upon conviction.

On the third point, King said he would not suppress evidence, nor would he prosecute people without probable cause.

"I believe it is the responsibility of the district attorney to analyze each case and decide if that case is right for prosecution," King said.

And the fourth point, which will include treatment for mental illnesses in convicted criminals and promotion of the Army National Guard's "Youth Challenge Program," will be used even in cases involving violent offenders, when rehabilitation is possible.

"Punishment alone is not enough to protect the community from violent criminals. We must also rehabilitate the violent criminal when rehabilitation is possible," King said.

A native of Jamaica, 43-year-old Scott now lives in Jonesboro and said she's been practicing since 1984, some in Jamaica and New York before coming to Clayton County. She's practiced criminal and civil law and worked for Atlanta's legal aid program.

"I provided representation to Clayton County residents who couldn't afford legal services," Scott said.

In her campaign Scott has been personally knocking on doors, has put up billboards and signs and has been running television and radio ads.

"I've been going to churches and speaking there," Scott said.

Scott also said she wants to seek alternatives to incarceration through pre-trial intervention programs, especially for non-violent offenders.

"I also would like to develop an environment in the district attorney's office where justice, fairness truth and honesty prevail," Scott said.

Also, Scott said she would stop what she called the "unfair practice of selective prosecution," but she would certainly strongly prosecute those she believes are guilty.

Improving relations between the community and the district attorney's office is also on Scott's list of issues. She wants the office to be sensitive to the needs of the community and she wants to work with churches, civic organizations and schools to reach out especially to the youth of the county.

"So that the kids understand how not to fall into the criminal justice system," Scott said.

Solicitor general's office

The county's Solicitor General Keith Martin is facing former Philadelphia assistant district attorney Leslie Miller Terry.

After 16 years as the county's solicitor general, 55-year-old Keith Martin said he's ready for another term.

"I want to finish what we've already begun," Martin said.

Martin served in the U.S. Marine Corps in the Vietnam War, was an officer with the Clayton County Police Department for six years and was an investigator for the district attorney's office before becoming an assistant district attorney.

He said his campaign is "proceeding apace."

"There've been no surprises," Martin said. "I've done it before and I know what to expect."

Martin said he wants to use advances in information technology and closer interaction with the county's police departments to reduce the time some suspects spend in jail between their arrests and when they get to see a state court judge. That time can be between four to six days now and he wants to cut it down to three or four days.

And Martin also wants to add another victim services assistant, preferably one who is bilingual.

"That will hopefully cut in half the time it takes to notify a victim of their rights under the victims rights bill," Martin said.

He is also working with the county's juvenile and superior courts to bring the National Safety Council's "Alive at 25" driver safety program to the county's schools. That program could provide four hours of training on issues facing inexperienced drivers.

The "Alive at 25" could also become part of another of Martin's projects, the creation of a "teen court."

"Teens trying teens and sentencing teens," Martin said.

Martin said the court would here only very minor offenses dealing with first offenders and the "Alive at 25" program might be used as an alternate sentence.

Finally, Martin said he's very pleased with his office's "Real Homeland Security" series of booklets on child predators, child abduction and bullying.

"The books are going like hotcakes in daycare centers (where they are distributed," Martin said.

Terry, 44, said her experience as a prosecutor makes her perfect for the solicitor general's office. She served six years as an assistant district attorney in Fulton County and before that she did the same job at the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office for four years.

Some people have asked her why she isn't running for district attorney, Terry said.

"The change that needs to take place right now is in the solicitor general's office," Terry said.

A resident of Riverdale, Terry practices criminal law from her Jonesboro office and has lived in Clayton County since 1992.

Her family and friends have been helping her out with her campaign, folding leaflets and going door to door.

The biggest issue for her is providing more pre trial intervention programs, particularly for first offenders and "people who deserve a second chance."

"When I review a case I'm going to have the guts to not accuse them if the facts indicate that they should not be accused," Terry said.

She will make those decisions on a case by case basis, Terry said, and she will be firm as well as fair.

"I'm stressing fair because that's what's needed," Terry said.

The current approach to prosecuting cases in the office is "like using brain surgery to fix the sniffles," Terry said. She wants to fix the problem, not the symptom.

Terry said she wouldn't engage in blanket policies such as requiring all domestic violence cases be prosecuted, and she wants to see something done about the increasing criminal prosecution of high school students for offenses like fighting.

"They're immediately arrested and possibly lose their chance at college for something we've all probably done," Terry said.

She wants to break the cycle faced by people who, for example, have their driver's license suspended but who must drive to work to support their families.

"We have to address these problems, but I can't do it unless I'm in office," Terry said.