Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson reviews the white board displaying all the cases her office has tried since January. Prosecutors have won 26 trials in a row. (Staff Photo: Kathy Jefcoats)
JONESBORO — There is a white board hanging in the hallway of the Clayton County District Attorney’s Office displaying every case that has been tried this year.
Prosecutors have won convictions in 31 of those 37 cases, including the last 26, said District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson.
“Of those trials, 20 were for serious violent felonies,” she said. “We had heard for a long time that Clayton County jurors wouldn’t convict defendants. I’m proud of our prosecutors proving their cases beyond a reasonable doubt and convincing our jurors of that reasonable doubt.”
Displaying the cases for the staff to see every day is bittersweet, said Chief Assistant District Attorney Erman Tanjuatco.
“We know there are victims and their families behind every one of those names,” he said.
Lawson said the successes are reflective of the hard-line approach her office has taken to reduce the caseload and get defendants to trial in a timely manner.
She was first elected in 2008 and won re-election in 2012. Lawson previously served as a judge for Clayton County Juvenile Court and as an assistant district attorney under former DA Bob Keller.
Lawson credits God for guiding her staff of prosecutors.
“I think it is God working through the members of this office, dispensing love, mercy and justice,” she said. “Love for the victims, mercy for defendants who deserve it and justice for the community and victims.”
Executive Assistant District Attorney Kathryn Powers said getting those convictions requires a partnership between the DA’s office and the Clayton County community.
“I think our office is reflective of the community as a whole,” said Powers. “Clayton County residents are reasonable in that they want to live their lives in a safe community. Each and every one on the staff reflects that belief.”
It is hard to argue with the statistics. When Lawson came into office, there were 3,049 pending cases. As of May 31, there were 2,530, a 17 percent reduction. Prosecutors have worked in earnest to get the most serious felony cases, those involving murder, into court, she said.
According to Lawson’s calculations, there are 24 pending indicted murder cases and nine that are unindicted.
“We don’t have defendants languishing in jail waiting to get to court,” said Lawson. “We’ve never had a case dismissed for lack of a speedy trial.”
Part of the reduction happened when Powers was promoted.
“Since Katie has been over our murder cases, we were able to drop the pending indicted cases to under 30,” said Lawson. “The pending unindicted cases are in single digits now.”
But she added that the results also reflect a team effort.
“We’ve got the whole staff working on it,” said Lawson. “Our victim advocates are great. Our investigators are finding witnesses that couldn’t be found before. Our assistant district attorneys are using modern technology and computers to present clear and convincing evidence in these cases to prove guilt.”
In addition to Tanjuatco and Powers, there are 19 assistant district attorneys in the office, which prosecutes felonies in Clayton County.
And Powers said there is more than just the satisfaction of winning a case.
“It’s not just about the conviction rate,” she said. “These families need closure. They put their lives on hold so we’ve got to get to that point faster. It’s part of the healing process.”
“The healing process doesn’t begin in earnest until the case is successfully prosecuted,” she said. “Every time the families are subpoenaed or the case is put on the calendar, they have nightmares, they can’t sleep or eat. It’s horrible.
“The faster we get to trial, the better for the well-being of victims and their families,” continued Lawson.
The defendants and their families also benefit from having cases disposed of in a timely manner, said Powers.
“We recognize victims putting their lives on hold,” she said. “And the defendant’s family does that too.”