By Daniel Silliman
A 17-year-old accused of murder will be tried as a juvenile, after a judge found the district attorney's office let the case languish and was "negligent."
Jeffrey Winslow, Jr., was facing a possible sentence of life in prison, on charges he shot 17-year-old Edward Bernard Mills to death during a dispute over money and marijuana. Now, in juvenile court, he will face the possible maximum sentence of four years in juvenile detention.
Juveniles accused of murder are automatically tried as adults, in Georgia, but their cases must be presented to a grand jury and indicted within 180 days.
Clayton County Superior Court Judge Deborah Benefield, in a order passed down on Tuesday, wrote "this court finds that the state missed the deadline through negligence ... The district attorney presented no evidence of any efforts made by her office to comply with the law."
Winslow allegedly shot Mills to death on a Sunday afternoon in October. He was arrested and charged in October, his case has been in the district attorney's office since November, and he has been in the county jail with adult men since he turned 17 in January. The district attorney's office, however, has not presented his case to a grand jury and has not indicted him.
The district attorney's office asked for more time, in a motion filed last month. According to state law, a judge can grant an extension on the 180-day deadline for "good cause."
Anece Baxter White, an assistant district attorney, argued that the prosecutors deserved an extension for two reasons. First, she said, they deserved an extension because there was some confusion about when the 180 days began -- the prosecutors somehow started counting when Winslow was transferred to the county jail, not when he was arrested, nor when his case was sent to their office. Second, according to White, they deserved an extension because the investigation, being done by the Clayton County Police Department, wasn't finished.
"It's not that the district attorney's office has the case and its been sitting around," White said, during the hearing. "It has not been the state's delay; it's been the police department."
Benefield rejected both arguments. In her ruling, she wrote that the timeline was clearly noted on the file, and is the prosecutors responsibility. She wrote that the police department had done a substantial amount of the investigation -- enough to present to a grand jury -- and the district attorney's office never asked for the file.
"Significantly," Benefield wrote, "the state presented no evidence as to attempts made by the district attorney's office to obtain the investigative report in order to comply with the statutorily mandated deadline."
Benefield said there was no "good cause," for the delay in the indictment and the case had to be sent to juvenile court, according to the law.
"This court is unaware of any law that equates 'good cause' with negligence," Benefield wrote.
Todd Naugle, the chief assistant district attorney speaking for the office, said, "I think we all could have done a better job." He said the office will look at the possibility of appealing the decision.
The case is scheduled for a June 23 probable cause hearing in juvenile court.
Tammy Mills, the mother of the murdered 17-year-old, said she feels angry and betrayed.
"This young man is the man who murdered my son, and now this boy can walk," Mills said. "All because procedures were not followed in the court system."
Mills said the ruling was explained to her by the district attorney's assistant, but she still doesn't really understand what happened, and why Winslow wasn't prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
"I don't have a clear answer on why," she said. "Why did it take so long? Why did it take so long to get the paperwork? They dropped the ball, when it came to this case. It got lost.
"Everyone is telling me they've done what they can do. Well I want to know, what else can you do?" she said. "All that you're telling me is useless, because this man is going to walk."
Police report that many of the witnesses to the murder have left town since October, after reportedly being threatened by gang members who are allegedly associated with Winslow. At a candle-light vigil for justice, held by Mills' mother last month, friends of the murdered man promised the grieving woman they would make things right without the help of the legal system.
"We got this," one young man said. "The police don't got this, we got this."