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Judge rules again that DA is 'negligent'

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Repeating her description of the district attorney's office as "negligent," in a ruling on a motion to reconsider the use of the term, Superior Court Judge Deborah Benefield cited the dictionary.

"The Miriam Webster dictionary defines negligence as 'marked by or given to neglect, especially habitually ... failing to exercise the care expected of a reasonably prudent person in like circumstances, or marked by a carelessly easy manner,'" Benefield wrote, in the order passed down Monday morning.

The judge -- who was a prosecutor before she was elected to the bench -- found the District Attorney's office was negligent in the way it handled the murder case of Jeffrey Winslow, Jr., failing to indict the 17-year-old within 180 days.

According to state legal code, any juvenile charged with murder is automatically an adult in the eyes of the law, but must be indicted within 180 days. If the case isn't indicted, and there's no "good cause" for an extension, the case is transferred to juvenile court, where the youth is considered a child, by law.

Winslow was arrested in October on allegations he murdered 17-year-old Edward Bernard Mills, shooting him in the back after buying a bag of marijuana. Winslow was transferred from juvenile detention to the county jail on his 17th birthday in January and was left there, for six months, without being indicted by a grand jury.

If treated as a juvenile, Winslow is facing a maximum possible sentence of four years in a detention center. As an adult, Winslow would face life in prison.

The district attorney's office filed a motion asking for more time to indict the case, but Benefield denied the motion. She said an extension can only be granted for "good cause," not negligence.

The district attorney's office filed a second motion, asking the judge to reconsider. At the hearing on Friday, Anece Baxter White, representing the district attorney's office, tried to show prosecutors had done "due diligence," in handling the case.

The chief investigator, Tony Robinson, who was in charge of the case until it was indicted, testified he had barely touched the juvenile's file, however. When he first received it, he said, he just made a notation in a log, and he left it untouched for months. Robinson said didn't know that there was a deadline. The only other person in the office tracking the case was Chief Assistant District Attorney Todd Naugle, who reviews a monthly print-out of juveniles facing indictments. He realized in May, he testified, that a mistake had been made and the indictment deadline had passed.

Benefield ruled on Monday that not only was the office negligent in handling the case, it was also negligent in preparing for the hearing to ask for an extension.

"The state filed the motion," Benefield wrote, "requested the hearing, but was nonetheless unprepared to state with any specificity what occurred in what the assistant district attorney termed 'a very serious case.'"

Benefield ruled the case should be sent to juvenile court to comply with the law.

Juvenile Court Judge Steve Teske held a probable cause hearing in the Winslow case on Monday afternoon. The assistant district attorney, prosecuting the case, was 30 minutes late.

White said she has filed an appeal with the Appeals Court of Georgia, because she believes there's a legal contradiction between the law which sends Winslow's case to the superior court and the law which, after 180 days, sends it to juvenile court.

According to White, the 180-day deadline, enacted in 2002, did not affect the 1994 law, which said superior court has "exclusive" jurisdiction over murder cases. White maintained Winslow's case can't be transferred to juvenile court, even though the deadline law says cases "shall be" transferred, if still unindicted after six months in the district attorney's office.

According to White, though, Benefield's order to transfer the case throws it into some sort of legal limbo, where no court has jurisdiction.

Teske asserted jurisdiction Monday, although the appeals court could later reverse his move, he said. Teske heard the county detective's evidence in the investigation of the murder of Edward Mills, and ruled there was probable cause to arrest Winslow.

Teske is expected to rule on a motion for bond on Tuesday.