Larry Chisolm, incumbent Chatham County District Attorney, retained a swagger of confidence recently in a spirited debate with his GOP challenger Meg Daly Heap before a packed house at St. Philips Monumental A.M.E. Church.
The 53–year–old graduate of Windsor Forest High School and Duke University rarely took his left hand out of pant pocket; or raised his voice. He presented himself in stark contrast to his opponent who tapped her ink pen on a table as she lodged rapid fire accusations that Chisolm hasn’t done a good job representing victims of crime and managing his staff.
Chisolm fired back that accusations that he is an “incompetent manager are inaccurate.’’
The candidates were put on the spot when asked which should be held responsible for the outcome of an emotionally charged case involving the 2003 death of 12–year–old Ashleigh Moore. A Superior Court Judge dismissed a murder indictment against the accused Bobby Buckner because his right to a speedy trial had been violated.
Heap listed two prosecutors who handled the murder case prior to the judge’s decision. But she did not mention her role as a supervisor in the district attorney’s office. Chisolm held a memo for the audience to see. He said it stated that Heap had been assigned to the case for a key period of time before she quit her job in the district attorneys office. “Why didn’t she step up to the plate?” he asked rhetorically.
“The buck stops with the District Attorney,’’ the boss in the office, she responded.
If that exchange is any indication of how Chisolm responds under pressure, it was nothing compared to one of his most stressful times during his term when the world media placed a spotlight on his office. Those unfamiliar with his authority in a death penalty case looked to him to help spare the life of convicted cop killer Troy Anthony Davis, who was ultimately executed by the state of Georgia. Davis was convicted in 1991 fatal shooting of Savannah police officer Mark Allen MacPhail, Sr.
Chisolm said he and his staff were working on thousands of cases under their control when he heard on the news that some 60,000 of petitions would be dropped off at his office asking him to stay Davis’ execution. Those same petitioners, mostly from outside of Chatham County, jammed the office telephone lines and email communications.
Chisolm never spoke out publicly during the case. “I didn’t have a role in the Troy Anthony Davis case. I wasn’t sitting here waiting to sign his death warrant,’’ he said. The decision was in the hands of Georgia’s Board of Pardon and Paroles but the public had been ``misinformed.’’
“It was frustrating. But we were able to do the work we could do. ...Everyone in the office had been held hostage. ...Locally, there was no pressure. I got very few phone calls from people who put me in this office. This was not a local issue.’’
Chisolm said he let the office’s public information officer, a position he created, handle the media. The annual report for the district attorney’s office provides a 51–page report of charts of convictions, dismissals and jury verdicts in Superior Court and other departments during his tenure. Of the 2,235 Superior Court cases filed last year, 1,832 cases made it through the judicial system; 1,403 of the cases resulted in guilty pleas, 182 cases were dismissed and four defendants were found not guilty by a jury, the report said. (The balance of those cases were not prosecuted or deadlocked during the jury process.)
Chisolm, the son of a machinist and a store clerk, said he sought the job four years ago and re–election today because, “I noticed there was an inequality in how the community viewed varies murders. Certain cases got more attention than others, those (victims) who have high profile status vs. those (victims) who did not. There was a similar lack of zeal in prosecuting those `so–called nobodies” in our office.’’
His job is to change that. “If a person with a criminal record is killed, we’re giving it the same attention as a person with a high profile.”
Chisolm’s predecessor Spencer Lawton held the seat for 28 years. Chisolm said his experience as a manager for 19 years as a district attorney in the Eastern Judicial Circuit and as the general counsel at Savannah State, trumps Heap’s management experience.
When Heap cited turnover among his staff, he said that turnover is not uncommon in any district attorney’s office, which often hires new lawyers who start their careers in the prosecutor’s office and then move on to advance their careers. Chisolm said he reorganized the office’s management team and he requires his chief deputies to report to him during a cabinet style meeting every Tuesday. The attorneys discuss their cases, offer feedback and share information within the divisions. That type of office management and cross training did not occur before he told office, he said.
Asked why those successes aren’t widely known in the community, Chisolm said, “Time has to tell the story. I can’t stand on the bully pulpit.”
Perhaps, his accomplishments were over shadowed in part by accusations of discrimination filed against Chisolm by former employees with the state Department of Administrative Services and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
A federal jury sided with one employee in September. Gwendolyn Robbins, a former employee claimed that Chisolm retaliated against her for filing a complaint with the EEOC when she was not granted an interview for a new position after her job had been eliminated during a reorganization plan.
The jury granted Robbins $270,000 and Chisolm has promised to appeal. He has said that applicants are screened by the Chatham County Human Resources Office and not directly by him.
“There hasn’t been any evidence of an allegation of discrimination on my part. There’s no evidence of impropriety or discrimination,” he said.