Southern Center for Human Rights Sends Warning Letter to City of Clarkston Regarding Unlawful Practices in the Clarkston Municipal Court

On Friday, attorneys from the Southern Center for Human Rights sent a letter to Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry, Clarkston City Attorney Stephen Quinn, and Clarkston Municipal Court Judge David C. Will, calling for the Clarkston Municipal Court to cease unlawful practices impacting the city’s predominantly refugee population. The Court’s practices, which are longstanding, clearly violate the rights of people who appear before the Court, as well as the United States Constitution, Georgia Constitution, Georgia Code, and Uniform Municipal Court Rules.

Imposition of Illegal Pay-or-Jail Sentences

Pay-or-jail sentences are those in which the Court requires people either to pay a set dollar amount or, if they are unable to pay, to be jailed.  Courts have long declared these sentences illegal because they subject indigent people to incarceration for no other reason than their poverty.  Despite this precedent, the Clarkston Municipal Court regularly imposes pay-or-jail sentences.  Since June of 2018, SCHR has witnessed multiple instances in which the Court has imposed pay-or-jail sentences almost exclusively on homeless or indigent individuals.  For instance, the court sentenced B.S., a homeless man diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia who allegedly failed to make probation payments and report to his probation officer, to either pay $1,500 or serve 60 days in jail   Because he could not afford to pay $1,500, B.S. served 45 days in jail.

“The City of Clarkston has an obligation to protect the rights of all its residents, regardless of the size of their bank account or their country of origin,” said Ebony Brown, attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights. “Unfortunately, the practices laid out in this letter disproportionately affect and penalize Clarkston’s large immigrant population.”

Failure to Provide Adequate Interpreter Services for non-English Speaking Defendants in Court

Clarkston has welcomed 40,000 refugees over the past 25 years.  In order to ensure that all people who interact with the criminal legal system can both understand and meaningfully participate in the legal process, municipal courts are required by law to provide interpreters and other language services to any defendant who has limited English proficiency.  Clarkston Municipal Court regularly fails to comply with Georgia law.  SCHR has repeatedly witnessed the Court allow uncertified individuals, such as family members or indiscriminate courtroom witnesses, to interpret the proceedings for them.  In other instances, the court has deprived limited English-speaking defendants of interpreter services entirely. 

On October 3, 2018, K.A., a 27-year-old West African student whose primary languages are Ewe and French, appeared before the Court for trial.  During K.A.’s trial, the public defender explicitly told the Court that he could not understand K.A.  At one point, the public defender asked the Court if K.A. could cross examine a witness himself because he could not understand K.A. The Court also struggled to communicate with K.A.  Yet the Court did not make a language proficiency determination and did not require the use of an interpreter during K.A.’s trial.  Instead, the Court proceeded with the trial, found K.A. guilty, and sentenced him to 6 months in jail.  K.A. served the entire 6-month sentence before his release on March 31, 2019.

“In court, a small misunderstanding or mistranslation can have life-altering implications,” said Atteeyah Hollie, a Senior Attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights. “It’s critically important that Clarkston Municipal Court provide certified and registered interpreters who are fluent in languages widely spoken in Clarkston.”

The letter also raises concerns about the Court’s routine failure to inquire into defendants’ ability to pay before imposing financial obligations at sentencing and unlawfully ordering the DeKalb County Jail to withhold defendants’ ‘good time’ credits.

The letter asks the City to respond by December 13, 2019, with plans to bring the Court into constitutional and statutory compliance.

Read the letter here.

Georgia Must Test the DNA Evidence in Imminent Scheduled Execution

In just two days, on Wednesday, November 13th, Georgia state officials have scheduled an execution despite the fact that they have no idea who actually committed the crime that triggered the death sentence.  

The state plans to kill Ray “Jeff” Jefferson Cromartie despite the fact that he has never wavered in maintaining his innocence of the crime for which he was sentenced to death; despite the fact that no court has heard new evidence of his innocence; despite the fact that the state refuses to test the extensive available evidence that could prove his innocence through DNA testing; despite the victims’ daughter repeatedly pleading for the state to test the DNA; despite his co-defendant’s brand new affidavit that Mr. Cromartie didn’t pull the trigger. (Mr. Cromartie’s execution had initially been set for October 30th, though it was temporarily stayed by the Georgia Supreme Court on a technical issue.)

Mr. Cromartie was convicted and sentenced to death in 1997 for the 1994 shooting death of convenience store clerk Richard Slysz in tragic fatal shooting that occurred during a botched robbery. Mr. Cromartie has never wavered in maintaining he did not short Mr. Slysz — even turning down a deal that would have seen him become parole eligible after 7 years if he pled guilty. The state didn’t test any of the evidence before Mr. Cromartie’s 1997 trial, and today – decades later – they are continuing to spend Georgia taxpayer dollars litigating in order to avoid having to turn over the DNA so that Mr. Cromartie’s attorneys can have it tested.  

Late last Friday, attorneys for Mr. Cromartie filed a new motion presenting new, reliable evidence of Mr. Cromartie’s innocence. The new filing contains an affidavit from Mr. Cromartie’s co-defendant and half-brother, Thaddeus Lucas, giving never-before-heard evidence that he heard another man, Corey Clarke, admit to being the  actual shooter who killed Mr. Slysz during the crime.  The State’s reliance on Mr. Clarke’s testimony is unsurprising – they had a weak case against Mr. Cromartie overall. No physical evidence shows that Mr. Cromartie shot the victim, or even touched the gun. Mr. Clarke had a clear motive to lie to investigators: in order to convince them that he was not the shooter, he had to convince them that Mr. Cromartie was. Mr. Clarke was paroled in 2005, and remains free today.

The new disclosure of a confession from Mr. Clarke is an extraordinary development. We at the Southern Center oppose all executions, but it would a horrific miscarriage of justice to execute Mr. Cromartie without full consideration of all the facts in his case, including the new evidence of his innocence.

Legal advocates, members of the Thomas County community, and even the victim’s daughter have pleaded with the state to test the DNA before any execution is carried out. “DNA testing will provide a reliable answer to the question of whether Mr. Cromartie was the shooter in Mr. Slysz’s tragic death,” Mr. Cromartie’s attorney Shawn Nolan said in a statement. Richard Slysz’s daughter, Elizabeth Legette, has implored both the Attorney General’s Office and the Georgia Board of Pardons & Parole to conduct the DNA testing before executing a potentially innocent man in the name of “justice” for her father. In a letter sent to the Georgia Supreme Court in October, Ms. Legette writes:

“I am writing to urge you to require DNA testing of the evidence in the case of Ray Cromartie, currently a death row inmate in Georgia. My father, Richard Slysz, was the victim in Mr. Cromartie’s case, and I consider myself a victim under Georgia’s victims’ rights statute and Constitution.

I have read a lot about the case and I believe that there are serious questions about what actually happened the night my father was murdered and whether Ray Cromartie actually killed him. This past summer, I contacted the prosecutors in the case and told them that I wanted DNA testing conducted…They never responded to me, but I understand that they opposed the testing. I still want DNA testing to occur. Today I learned that the State has set a date to execute Mr. Cromartie without doing any testing. This is wrong, and I hope that you will take action to make sure that the testing happens.”

There is extensive, intact evidence – ready to be tested – that the State argued was worn by or handled by the shooter. Why won’t Georgia agree to use modern DNA testing, not available at the time of the crime and trial, to find out who the shooter was? It is the only way to avoid executing a potentially innocent man.