BRUNSWICK – The prosecutors who watched the fatal police shooting video of Caroline Small had more than a century of courtroom experience — from murder cases to child molestation to rape.
Still, the violence that unfolded on the computer screen shocked them into silence. The video showed eight police bullets piercing the car windshield of the unarmed Georgia mother as she was pinned against a utility pole and surrounded by police cars.
The consensus in the courthouse conference room was that the two Glynn County police officers who pulled their triggers had committed a crime. One DA called for more investigation. A second said it was manslaughter. Another said it was aggravated assault.
Several called it murder.
“We were just stunned,” said David Peterson, one of the prosecutors. “We just said, ‘That’s a killing.’ We thought the officers used improper force. There was a sense that something bad here has happened.”
Almost to a person, the prosecutors believed the officers should be indicted by a criminal grand jury. A jury trial seemed certain to follow.
What happened instead derailed the case and fundamentally shook their beliefs in the justice system and the rule of law.
Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson fired one prosecutor for his outspoken determination to prosecute the 2010 shooting, and she excluded the others who best knew the evidence. The case languished for a year before Sgt. Robert C. Sasser and Officer Michael T. Simpson were cleared by a civil grand jury in 2011 amid a series of questionable and irregular legal maneuvers. Sasser and Simpson remain in law enforcement today.
Now four former prosecutors in Johnson’s office have come forward to tell their story of how the case unraveled. They said they were emboldened to speak out after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News reported in July that Johnson took extraordinary measures to aid the two officers in their defense.
The AJC and Channel 2 reported that Johnson gave the officers the case files almost two months before the grand jury met and allowed defense attorneys to cross-examine witnesses in the grand jury room — unprecedented actions in Georgia grand jury procedures.
The former Brunswick prosecutors say Johnson's actions violated prosecutorial ethics and betrayed her duty to uphold justice. They also say that Johnson had a conflict of interest because she was concerned about damaging her relationship with the Glynn County Police Department and should have disqualified herself from any involvement with the case.
“The way the case was presented to the grand jury was improperly done,” said Keith Higgins, a former senior prosecutor who was in the group that viewed the video. “A prosecutor’s duty is to seek and to do justice. To accomplish that task a prosecutor should do what’s right, do it in the right way and do it for the right reason. Ms. Johnson failed to do any of those in this case.”
The former prosecutors told the AJC and Channel 2 that Gov. Nathan Deal, Attorney General Sam Olens and the GBI should re-open the case so that it can be presented to a criminal grand jury by an impartial prosecutor. The GBI agent who supervised the investigation in 2010 told the AJC in July that Caroline Small’s killing was the worst police shooting he’d investigated in two decades of work.
Former Glynn assistant district attorney Jonathan Miller resigned in March 2012, in part, because of Johnson’s handling of Small’s case and her overall management of the office. He called the case a tragedy and a miscarriage of justice that still troubles him.
“There’s two little kids out there that don’t have a mama,” said Miller, who lost a primary against Johnson in July 2012. “I never lost my prosecutorial feelings. (Small) deserves her day in court.”
Johnson, for her part, has refused to discuss the case and has declined interview requests since the AJC and Channel 2 started investigating the Small shooting last spring. She again declined interview requests for this story.
“I do not want my words used out of context to compound the tragic nature of this case,” Johnson wrote to the AJC Nov. 12. “I respect the Glynn County Grand Jury’s finding that the officers acted lawfully.”
At a candidate forum in 2012, Johnson said she handled the case properly before the grand jury.
“I don’t control the results,” said Johnson, quoted in the Brunswick News. “I control the process.”
Politics in the DA’s office
In the immediate aftermath of the June 2010 shooting, the Brunswick Judicial Circuit district attorney’s office underwent a change in leadership that influenced how the Small case was handled.
District Attorney Stephen Kelley was appointed to a local Superior Court judgeship months earlier and was set to assume that role July 1. Kelley named an experienced senior prosecutor, David Perry, to be acting district attorney ahead of a special election scheduled for November.
Perry, a former elected DA in Tifton, was serving in the Brunswick circuit as an assistant. But Perry no longer had an interest in politics and declared publicly he would not run to replace Kelley.
Almost from the start, however, the shooting on June 18 thrust Perry, then 64, into the path of Johnson, an ambitious young assistant prosecutor in the office, and Glynn County Police Chief Matt Doering, who was working behind the scenes to help Johnson reach her political goals.
Johnson, who worked out of the Camden County office, announced her intention to run for the DA’s job on June 21, three days after Small was shot. No one in the DA’s office had yet seen the explosive dash cam video of the shooting, although Chief Doering had already publicly stated his view that his officers did nothing wrong.
Within hours of the afternoon shooting, Doering told local Brunswick media that the officers feared for their lives and had no choice but to fire, a version the officers themselves claimed as the case unfolded.
Before he’d seen the video himself, Perry essentially shared the same view. At a meeting with Doering and GBI agents on June 28, he told the agents that he was pro law enforcement and skeptical that the officers had done anything wrong, according to former GBI supervisor Mike McDaniel.
His opinion changed after the GBI showed him the dash cam video at the meeting.
“After reviewing the tape, I felt we needed to treat this as a criminal investigation,” Perry told the Brunswick News. The paper also quoted him saying he planned to seek an indictment from a grand jury.
Doering quickly pushed back, telling a reporter in the same article that he didn’t agree with Perry’s conclusion.