By Daniel Silliman
In the race for Clayton County District Attorney, Herbert Adams promotes himself as someone who "knows every side of the courtroom." Some who have known him in the courtroom, however, are deeply opposed to his election.
"I understand people in Clayton County think everything's going in the wrong direction," said Danny Porter, Gwinnett County district attorney. "I'm just saying, if you want to see if things could get worse, vote for Herb Adams."
Four years ago, Adams, a defense attorney, represented Wesley Harris in Gwinnett County Superior Court. Harris was charged with kidnapping and murdering 22-year-old Whitney Land and her 2-year-old daughter, Jordan. He was accused, and later convicted, of abducting them from a Jonesboro park, driving them to Gwinnett, shooting them to death, stuffing them in the trunk of his car, and setting the car on fire.
Porter, prosecuting the case, was seeking the death penalty. In 2004, almost five years after the murder, four years after case got underway, and three weeks into jury selection, a judge declared a mistrial, on the grounds that Adams was unprepared.
At the time, Porter told newspaper and television reporters Adams was distracted by his desire to be a district attorney in DeKalb County, and he described Adams as "a disgrace as an attorney."
Time has not changed his opinion.
After Adams, who moved to Clayton County last year, announced his intentions to run for district attorney here, Porter said Adams was "morally, ethically and professionally wrong," in the way he handled Harris' case. Porter described Adams as "an empty suit," who was a "disgrace to the profession."
As the jury was being seated, Porter recalled, Adams still, apparently, had not looked through the evidence in the case, though it had been available to him for years. He had not spoken to witnesses, Porter said, and seemed like he hadn't reviewed basic details of the prosecution's allegations.
Porter wasn't the one who moved for a mistrial, however. Adams' co-council, in defending Harris, filed three separate motions to remove him.
Christine Koehler, working with Adams on Harris' defense, reportedly became concerned about a month before the trail. Koehler could not be reached for comment for this article, but at the time of the mistrial, she told a Gwinnett Daily Post reporter she had watched Adams' work with increasing concern.
"As we sort of put our two parts of the trial together," Koehler is reported as saying, "it became apparent to me that preparation levels were not where they should be."
The mother and grandmother of Harris' murder victims, Shelia Howell, is a real estate agent who lives on the south end of Clayton County. She said she will definitely not be voting for Adams in July.
"God forbid, him be a DA," Howell said. "He could be running against the worst person in the world, and he'd still be worse."
Howell said she understands Harris was entitled to a vigorous legal defense, she understands he was considered innocent until proven guilty, and she understands Adams was supposed to defend Harris. What upsets her, she said, is that Adams was "self-serving," "seeking to boost his career," and was "rude and arrogant."
"The man was ridiculous through the whole proceedings," Howell said. "He came into the courtroom late for motions, and acted like it was no big deal ... He was always bringing up the race issue. Any issue there was, he would make it about race. He would say, 'Your honor, let it be noted for the record that this is a black male.' I found it offensive. I don't hate Wesley Harris because he's a black man, I hate Wesley Harris because he murdered my daughter and granddaughter -- and I don't care if he's purple."
In the upcoming Democratic primary, Adams is running against the sitting district attorney, Jewel Scott, and a juvenile court judge, Tracy Graham-Lawson.
A defense attorney, municipal judge in Forest Park and former assistant district attorney in DeKalb County, Adams has said he's running on his ethics, experience and education. In his campaign announcement, made in front of the county courthouse on May 1, Adams said, "A DA must possess the highest ethical standards."
Asked about the Harris case and the 2004 mistrial, Adams said he didn't know it was relevant to the race for district attorney, describing it as "water under the bridge."
When pressed, Adams said he actually asked to be removed from the case, because Harris didn't want him as an attorney anymore.
According to Porter, Adams did ask to be removed from the case, but only when he knew the motion for a mistrial was underway. According to Adams, though, Porter is just upset because the prosecutors "really wanted to get the death penalty," and were blocked in the rush to execution.
"Nothing unethical was done," Adams said.
The defense attorney said the Harris case should, actually, be listed as a reason to vote for him in July. It is, he said, another example of his wide-ranging courtroom experience.
"When you're in many litigations," Adams said, "you have ups and downs, and I'm not afraid to take tough cases."
On Monday, at a political forum, Adams again cited his experience. He said he is the most qualified to be district attorney, because he has tried more than 100 cases in front of a jury, more than either of his opponents.
Adams has tried and continues to try many cases. He is currently, for example, representing a man accused of a torture and murder in a death penalty case in Clayton County.
In one of those 100 cases, though, Adams was considered by his colleagues and a judge to be unprofessional and unprepared. One prominent Clayton County attorney, who said he has not yet decided who to support in the race, described the Gwinnett County mistrial as a burden that might break Adams' campaign.
He called it "Adams' albatross."