JONESBORO — The Clayton County District Attorney is running for re-election on her record while her challenger vows to pursue fair and balanced prosecutions if elected.
Tracy Graham Lawson was elected in 2008 and has spent nearly 30 years serving Clayton County as either a prosecutor or a Juvenile Court judge. Her opponent, Leslie Miller Terry, is a Philadelphia native who was elected Clayton County State Court Solicitor General in 2004. She lost a bid for re-election in 2008. Terry has worked as a defense attorney and as an assistant prosecutor in Fulton and DeKalb counties.
Lawson said she is proud of the work her staff has done in the past three and a half years.
"I have accomplished every goal I set when I ran for office in 2008 and then some," said Lawson. "We've eliminated the backlog of cases, we've reduced the average age of cases by getting inmates into court in an average of five and a half months. We've been the voice of victims. We've given deserving first offenders a second chance and we've tried to educate the youth by working in the schools and making videos."
Lawson said her office has saved taxpayers more than $2 million by getting cases into court as quickly as possible. The backlog of cases has been reduced by 34 percent since 2009, she said. Her office is preparing a third video aimed at students, this one focusing on anti-bullying.
Lawson said she is seeking a second term because there is more work to be done.
"I want to continue to make a positive change in the district attorney's office," she said. "I want to continue to have effective case management and focus on the aggressive violent offenders who hurt our citizens."
In collaboration with Clayton State Court Solicitor General Tasha Mosley and law enforcement, Lawson's office is working to reduce domestic violence incidents through treatment of offenders and victims, and educating the public, she said.
Her office has already applied for a grant to start a cold case squad in conjunction with Clayton State University. Lawson said there are about 50 unsolved murders in Clayton.
"We want to bring closure for those victims' families," she said.
Lawson made headlines when she began convening special grand juries to investigate public officials. Her office has indicted former Sheriff Victor Hill and several of his former employees; a former manager at the Clayton County Water Authority; former Morrow City Manager John Lampl and former Forest Park City Councilwoman Karen-Brandee Williams.
"I will continue to hold public officials accountable for misdeeds and or crimes," said Lawson. "I do not think it's fair to charge an 18-year-old with theft and not prosecute the person who raises his right hand to swear an oath of office who goes on to commit theft."
Lawson said she looks to God for strength and an Irish philosopher for inspiration.
"I am relying on God's will in my life," she said. "He has blessed me with the attributes for this profession that allows me to be successful. I also love the Edmund Burke quote, 'All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.' That's kinda how I feel."
Terry is hoping to get elected by vowing to be fair and balanced.
"It's all about the people," she said. "It's always been about the people for me. I'm not a politician. I believe in fair prosecution. I would be a straight-up DA."
She also addressed speculation that she would interfere with Hill's case. It has been assigned to a special prosecutor outside Clayton County.
"I would have nothing to do with the Hill case," said Terry. "It's in the hands of another prosecutor."
Terry also dismissed the notion that she is being backed by a political machine.
"I am my own person and I will run the office with integrity," she said.
According to Terry's campaign disclosure reports, Clayton County County Manager Wade Starr contributed $2,500 -- the maximum allowed by an individual. Lawson has refused to confirm speculation that a special grand jury is specifically investigating county commissioners, commenting only that she is looking into corruption.
However, an investigation into the county's financial officer, Angela Jackson, is pending.
Terry said she can't control who contributes to her campaign.
Because she has worked as a defense attorney, Terry said she brings a unique perspective to the office.
"Tracy Graham Lawson has been on the other side of the courtroom," she said. "She's only been a prosecutor or a judge. I believe in fairness for the victim and defendant alike. That's an element that's been missing. I've been on both sides. I can bring better balance and better perspective. If you don't know any better, you can't do any better."
In addition to fairness, Terry said she would take a common sense approach to prosecution.
"I want to meet with the people and hear their concerns," she said. "These are things that have to be done. You can't reduce crime without knowing what's going on. I'm gonna check it out. Violent crime has to be a priority. People being raped, robbed, murdered and burglarized -- that should be the district attorney's main concern."
She suggests there is no “deep theory” to prosecuting cases.
“I believe in the best in people,” said Terry. “People deserve a second chance but you do what you have to do, whether that’s years in prison or life in prison.”
She also favors "conflicting out" certain prosecutions to avoid mixing politics with investigations.
"We've got the FBI, the Attorney General's Office and other agencies that can investigate," said Terry. "If something happens in our county, it needs to be conflicted out to avoid the appearance of impropriety."
Terry also wants to add specialized units to investigate certain crimes.
“We can’t let budgets stand in the way,” she said. “They’re needed.”
Lawson’s predecessor, Jewel Scott, took a different approach to being a district attorney. Scott saw the office as more political and allowed her staff to prosecute cases. Lawson has been more hands-on, trying cases alongside her senior assistants.
If elected, Terry said she plans a more blended position.
“I want to take a hands-on approach but I also want to foster a deep community involvement,” she said. “I need to be out there, I need to know what’s going on.”
She said she looks to former Clayton District Attorney Bob Keller, Fulton District Attorney Paul Howard and DeKalb District Attorney Robert James as role models.
“Bob Keller was a pretty cool DA to me,” she said. “He had the perfect blend of being a politician and being a prosecutor. Paul Howard is an excellent politician and teaches young trial attorneys. I try to aspire to do as good a job as they do. I’ve worked under some really good people.”