Georgia Today: The Legacy Of Outgoing Fulton Co. DA Paul Howard
The defeat of Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard in August during a runoff election was both a shock and an inevitability. On Georgia Today, Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Christian Boone discusses Howard’s long tenure, and what his defeat might mean for criminal justice reform movement in Fulton County.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today, a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. I'm Steve Fennessy. It's Friday, September 18th, 2020.
Paul Howard: I was so humbled to — to get this job in the first place to be the first African-American elected D.A. Let me tell you, I came with pride and I'm leaving with pride.
Steve Fennessy: The defeat of Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard last month in a runoff against Fani Willis, a former prosecutor he'd once hired, was both a shock and an inevitability. A shock because Howard had been a Fulton County institution, elected time and again since his first win in 1996. But it was also in some ways inevitable as Howard's oversight of the prosecutor's office began to seem more and more out-of-touch with calls to reform criminal justice in Atlanta and in America. Today, Christian Boone, a reporter with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, joins me to discuss Howard's long tenure and what his defeat might mean for criminal justice reform movement in Fulton County. Christian, you ready?
Christian Boone: I'm ready.
Steve Fennessy: So, Christian, take us back to 1997, which is the first year that Paul Howard became District Attorney in Fulton County.
Christian Boone: Well, yeah, that was well, first of all, he takes over for an institution: Lewis Slaton, who had been there 36 years, I believe.
Steve Fennessy: So when Paul Howard became district attorney in Fulton County in 1997, he was the first black D.A. to be elected in the entire state of Georgia, right?
Christian Boone: Correct.
Steve Fennessy: And so what was the scene in Fulton County leading up to that?
Christian Boone: Well, I mean, he inherited a, you know, something of a mess. And he kind of spearheaded a modernization of the office, changed a lot of things. But, yeah, he came in also with a really high crime rate.
Paul Howard: We had deaths, deaths of young people. We had, I believe, in 1996, about 186 people who were killed.
Christian Boone: Here's Paul Howard talking with Atlanta Voice.
Paul Howard: So it was a — it was a terrible time because people were concerned that they might be swept up in the violence.
Christian Boone: That was sort of his mandate was, you know, Atlanta was — people think that Atlanta's dangerous now. It's nothing compared to what it was back then. I mean, we were routinely having over 200 homicides a year.
Steve Fennessy: And wasn't there a brief time where we had the inauspicious distinction of being the murder capital of the country?
Christian Boone: Yeah, I think that I think they held that title for a few years. So, I mean, it was — it was a different Atlanta, a different Fulton County at that point.
Steve Fennessy: So he was campaigning, you know, not unusual for a D.A. candidate, but he was campaigning as a Law and Order candidate.
Christian Boone: Correct. He seized upon — I mean, what was you know, it was an obvious platform to run on because Atlanta did have a major crime problem.
Newscast: Right now, we are learning some of Atlanta's most violent neighborhoods are seeing a major drop in crime.
Steve Fennessy: And as time went by over his tenure, crime rates came down. But they also — you know, they were mirroring national trends. To what degree was Paul Howard sort of a driving force in retrospect of bringing those crime rates down?
Christian Boone: Well, I mean, you know, a district attorney can only do so much. I mean, I think it's overstated that he brought crime down. I mean, that would go to policing and —
Steve Fennessy: Right.
Christian Boone: And changes in — societal changes. Economic changes. He sure prosecuted — prosecuted a lot of cases. And that's one of the criticisms of him, I think, that has held over the years. But, you know, he also — if you're in office and crime goes down, you can you're gonna trumpet that, and he did. And, you know, he had a record to run on.
Steve Fennessy: Let's talk a little bit about a significant event in Paul Howard's first term, and that is when Atlanta hosted the Super Bowl in January 2000. This is, you know, months before Paul Howard was running for reelection. There was an incident on the night of the Super Bowl in Buckhead. What was that?
Christian Boone: It was a fight involving NFL — A former NFL player, Ray Lewis, played for the Ravens. Two people were killed in the stabbing deaths.
Stan Stovall: Good evening, everybody, I’m Stan Stovall.
Mary Beth Marsden: And I'm Mary Beth Marsden. It was a tale of two crime scenes today. The prosecution told the jury it will be able to follow a blood trail from Ray Lewis’ seat in a limousine to his hotel room while his lawyers say everything the Ravens linebacker did was aimed at stopping the fight that led to the murder.
Christian Boone: Lewis is among those charged in the murder by Paul Howard. It was obviously a huge case.
Newscast: D.A. Paul Howard told the jury, look at it, Lewis was a willing participant in the brawl, which led to the stabbing through Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar.
Paul Howard: And then he drew his hand to beat back and aimed the blow toward him — And he will tell you the blow was a blow that was one that was down in the bottom part of his chest area.
Newscast: But Howard wasn't able to put a knife in Lewis’ hand that night.
Christian Boone: Usually D.A.’s do not actually prosecute, they bring charges. But he did it and it just went awful. I mean, he just looked unprepared, overmatched. Witnesses were changed, you know. Witnesses weren’t cooperating. It was just — it was a debacle. Ray Lewis ended up pleading guilty just to an obstruction of justice charge. The case just fell apart.
Newscast: One of the top prosecutors in the state is looking back at his own cases to make sure that he got it right.
Steve Fennessy: So last August 2019, Paul Howard announces the formation of a new unit within his office called the Conviction Integrity Unit. What — what exactly is the Conviction Integrity Unit?
Christian Boone: It is a panel, basically an eight-member panel consisting of three Fulton prosecutors, a defense attorney, lawyers from the Georgia Innocence Project and the NAACP. And I think some other — a representative of the faith community…. And they are looking at cases to see whether Fulton County got a right or wrong.
Paul Howard: We will look at convictions that took place in our office to see whether or not they were just.
Christian Boone: Here's Paul Howard, an interview with the Atlanta Voli speaking about the Conviction Integrity Unit.
Paul Howard: We've got a five-person citizen’s committee. They reviewed these cases. We had 131 people that applied for a petition to ask us to look at their cases. And if I see a case that it looks like it was not justified, then we're going to do whatever we can to exonerate it.
Christian Boone: He is, you know, an old school D.A. I mean, he — he runs that office. There's no detail that's, you know, a lot of people who accuse him of micromanaging over the years. There's been a ton of turnover there and that became a big issue in this campaign. I think a lot of the A.D.A.’s just didn't feel like they had any kind of — they weren't respected for their experience and their opinions. So that caused a lot of friction. There's prosecutors in Cobb, Gwinnett, DeKalb, you name it, that once worked for Fulton. There has been no really tainted scandal to Paul Howard. I mean, there was a lot of people who didn't like the way you ran his office, didn't like the way he did his job.
Steve Fennessy: But Christian that changed last year.
Newscast: Fulton County administrator is accusing District Attorney Paul Howard of sexual harassment. Former Human Resources Director Tisa Grimes says she was the victim of workplace sexual harassment. She says Howard inappropriately touched her and made obscene comments over the span of a couple of months. She also claims she was demoted after making his actions public. Now, in response, Paul Howard's attorney says the allegations are meritless.
Christian Boone: There was another former employee who came forward with a gender discrimination suit. So that you know hit, like, within a matter of two or three months, the end of last year, the beginning of this year. Then you had scandals about money and getting money from Fulton County, putting into his own accounts. This is money that was spoken to a nonprofit.
Steve Fennessy: Well, let's, let's, let's unpack that one a little bit here. People need to understand what's going on. So — so he — Paul Howard his sort of full-time day job is District Attorney of Fulton County. But he was also involved in some other — other pursuits from a nonprofit perspective. What were they?
Christian Boone: Yeah, he was a CEO of the nonprofit People Partnering for Progress.
Steve Fennessy: So Paul Howard is CEO of People Partnering for Progress. And what is the mission, the role of that nonprofit?
Christian Boone: Ostensibly it’s to reduce youth violence.
Steve Fennessy: OK. And how does it do that?
Christian Boone: Well, that's… [laughs]
Steve Fennessy: Is that one of the questions?
Christian Boone: Yeah, that is one of the questions is what — what did it do?
Steve Fennessy: Okay, so he's drawing or was drawing a salary as CEO of that nonprofit?
Christian Boone: Well, he was paying himself. Yeah. Through money that was given by the city. That was supposed to go to the nonprofit.
Steve Fennessy: Okay. So the city — the city agrees to help fund this nonprofit of which Paul hired a CEO.
Christian Boone: The city agreed to sign over $250,000 in grant money in two checks that were signed over to the D.A.'s office in 2014 and 2016. And it's alleged that 195,000 out of the $250,000 in grant money went into Howard's bank account
Steve Fennessy: When he was asked by the Atlanta Voice about the ethics violations against him, Paul Howard said nothing improper was done.
Paul Howard: That's why I'm so confident that after any investigation, wherever they do — conduct the investigation, it will clearly exonerate me.
Christian Boone: He reached a deal with the State Ethics Commission just days before the runoff where he agreed to pay $6,500 for 14 ethics violations stemming from this failure to disclose his role as CEO of the nonprofit in which he netted $195,000 in city grant money.
Steve Fennessy: So that — that closed the State Ethics investigation.
Christian Boone: Right.
Steve Fennessy: That was sort of settled that. But there are other — but that's not the end of the matter, right? What else is going on with that?
Christian Boone: GBI is investigating that as well. You know, Howard, again, dismisses as administrative and he claimed that those — that the decision delivered a death blow to those who try to equate it to criminal behavior. But the GBI builds ultimate arbiters of that.
Steve Fennessy: OK, so we have that scandal, which I think is a fair word that emerges this past spring. We also have reporting by you about allegations from within his office, allegations about sexual harassment, sexual impropriety.
Christian Boone: Mhm.
Steve Fennessy: And separately and together, what was sort of the — the end result of those revelations in terms of — of how it impacted his reelection chances?
Christian Boone: I think it put a huge dent in them.
Political Ad: District Attorney Paul Howard's time is up. Too many problems. Fani Willis will protect us. 24-year prosecutor, lawyer, and judge.
Fani Willis: I'm Fani Willis. I will serve with integrity, treat people fairly, and keep our community safe.
Christian Boone: I mean, I think Fani Willis was going to run against him no matter what. She certainly sensed some vulnerability there. But this made it a whole new race.
Steve Fennessy: Well, let's talk about Fani Willis. She worked as a prosecutor under Paul Howard. When?
Christian Boone: She joined in 2003 and quickly moved up the ranks to become basically his number two. She was — she prosecuted some of the biggest cases there and none bigger than the Atlanta Public Schools’ cheating scandal.
Newscast: Good evening. There's no harder lesson than the one taught today to eight Atlanta educators by an angry judge after they were convicted on charges typically reserved for mobsters.
Steve Fennessy: So she was the lead prosecutor on the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal trial.
Christian Boone: Yes, she was.
Steve Fennessy: And so for how long did she work for Paul Howard altogether?
Christian Boone: 13 years. He hired her, he made her, you know, promoted her. He felt, you know, I made her. And now she's — she's running against me as somebody who's, you know, not trustworthy, as just a bad guy.
Steve Fennessy: So who is Fani Willis, the former prosecutor who spent more than a decade working for Paul Howard and who is now poised to take his job? That's ahead. This is Georgia Today.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today. We're talking with Christian Boone, a reporter with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, about the recent defeat of longtime Fulton County D.A. Paul Howard.
Christian Boone: I mean there's been long standing tensions between him and the police department. I think a lot of it is because the repeat offenders, is they feel like, you know, we're arresting people 20 times and they just keep ending out back on the streets. So it's a lot of frustrations.
Steve Fennessy: And why is that? I thought — I thought Paul Howard was a Law and Order candidate. Why are those why aren't those who are being arrested over and over ending up in jail?
Christian Boone: That's a good question. I think that's because there was some excessive charging done. And there's a whole variety of reasons, you can’t just pin it on Paul Howard… the repeat offenders…. You know, there's just always been a feeling, I think, by the police that Paul Howard didn't respect them — didn't, you know, value what they did. And even on things about, you know, testifying, they would sit there and wait all day. They would testify in court. And in some particular cases, too, that happened in recent years.
Steve Fennessy: And in terms of where Fani Willis stands on this contentious issue, what has she said?
Christian Boone: She makes a big point on, you know, creating pre-indictment diversion programs. That's a big part of her campaign, basically they seek to divert, you know, offenders into supervision programs administered by the D.A.'s office.
Fani Willis: I have this passion for youth programs and this passion for this pre-indictment diversion program, because I just know our kids, they just got a raw deal.
Christian Boone: Here's Fani Willis speaking with Atlanta Voice.
Fani Willis: Right now, we do not have a diversion program before indictment so we charge everybody. We put that scarlet letter on everybody. This will be done, there will be no indictment drawn. You'll be required to go do community service, maybe get your GED. It'll be customized because the whole idea is that we don't treat people like witches.
Christian Boone: Common criticism of Paul Howard is that, you know, there was a lot of talk about repeat offenders and a lot of that was because, you know, critics that the charges were too excessive. Now, did she run a lot of these progressive reforms? No. She made a point in the interview with me to say, look, I'm not — I'm not going to be — I'm not for defunding the police.
Steve Fennessy: She won the endorsement of the Atlanta Police Union, which — which would indicate that she — well that at least the Police Union, sees her as an advocate for what they do and who they are.
Christian Boone: I think more they see her as not Paul Howard. I think Paul Howard, what happened this summer with the prosecutions, I think turned the police.
Newscast: A felony murder charge and ten other charges for former Atlanta Police officer Garrett Rolfe, who shot and killed 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks.
Paul Howard: We've concluded, at the time Mr. Brooks was shot, that he did not pose an immediate threat of death.
Newscast: Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard also charged the other officer at the scene, Devin Bronson, with aggravated assault and two other charges for violating police rules.
Steve Fennessy: Paul Howard moved extremely fast.
Christian Boone: Yes. And that was not — not his M.O. before that. I mean, there are cases that go back four years that have not been decided.
Steve Fennessy: So what was the difference here that made Paul Howard move faster than he has in previous cases?
Christian Boone: Paul Howard faced a lot of criticism for bringing the charges against the officer so quickly in the Rayshard Brooks case. And a lot of people accused him of playing politics with it. He denied that in an interview with Atlanta Voice.
Paul Howard: So we had eight videotapes. We had three eyewitnesses, eight associated witnesses. It gave the unit in my office and, a lot of people don't realize, we've got a unit that is particularly focused upon these kinds of cases with lawyers, with investigators and with administrators. And it gave us an opportunity to make a charging decision. We did that and it had nothing to do with politics. What it did have something to do with is the evidence that was available to us in the case.
Steve Fennessy: When Paul Howard was announcing the charges against the two officers involved in the Rayshard Brooks killing, he said that Grand Juries should be bypassed altogether in police shooting cases. That was a remarkable statement from someone who is entrusted with upholding the rule of law. What — what's your take on that?
Christian Boone: That was a pretty remarkable announcement. And, you know, there was — there were some contradictions that just, you know, in one case from a few weeks earlier, and this is involving some two college students who were violently arrested, pulled out, tased for doing really nothing. You know, at that point, the taser is a deadly weapon.
Steve Fennessy: Right.
Christian Boone: And then when Rayshard Brooks has a taser it's not.
Steve Fennessy: Right.
Christian Boone: And you know —
Steve Fennessy: He’s trying to have it both ways.
Christian Boone: Yeah. Yeah. There was, you know, just — and it just sort of spoke to the — I think how the case was — the cases were rushed. They just didn't have….
Steve Fennessy: Right.
Christian Boone: You know, as clear as the evidence may have been, you know, you still got to cross all the T's and dot all the I's and it just it just felt so…. I think — I think it had an impact way beyond what I would've thought. I would've thought it was going to help him. It turned out I think — I think it made a blowout of what it was.
Steve Fennessy: This is maybe an impossible question to answer. But if this had not been an election year, would we have heard about those charges against these officers as quickly as we did?
Christian Boone:I don't think that we would have seen as quickly as we did. Now we may have seen it quicker. We may have seen it by now. Because I think there would have been immense pressure. I think protests would still be going on if there had not there not been charges. So I think we definitely have seen something within four years, sooner than four years more likelike four weeks at the most. But yeah, without the election, you know...
Newscast: Well, it was a heated battle for Fulton County District Attorney between six-term incumbent Paul Howard and his former assistant to the D.A., Fani Willis. But the results after last night's runoff election are now crystal clear. Willis, garnering more than 70 percent of the vote, will become the next District Attorney of Fulton County….
Steve Fennessy: How can we expect a Fani Willis D.A.'s office to be different than a Paul Howard D.A.’s office?
Christian Boone: Well, she's saying we’re going to have accountability, we’re gonna have transparency, which is what they all say. Fani Willis told 11Alive that she plans to run the office much differently than her predecessor, Paul Howard.
Fani Willis: We're going in a new direction. I mean I want everyone to be very clear. I offer the citizens of this community a change and a change is what I plan to bring. And I'm going to bring that by having the best and the brightest minds from around this country. Former D.A.s — I’ve had lawyers at top firms say that under me they would come and work because they know that they will be doing work of integrity and not just trying to rack up convictions.
Steve Fennessy: Fani Willis has a lot of decisions to make as the incoming D.A.. One is involving the prosecution of the two officers involved in the Rayshard Brooks killing. Has she made any announcements about what her plans are there?
Christian Boone: She wants to conduct her own investigation with her team. And, you know, I know she thinks because of what happened, Paul Howard’s conduct, she feels like this — this may never even see the court in Fulton County because, if it does, charges will need to be moved up somewhere else.
Fani Willis: Quite frankly, I do not know if we are legally going to be able to keep the Brooks case in Fulton County due to the fact that the District Attorney chose to have this show, this Ringling Brothers show, that he called a press conference where he went through facts and alleged evidence in the case. And then you combine that with running television ads and commercials on the radio. Some may say that that particular defendant, that particular charge person, cannot get a fair trial in this jurisdiction.
Christian Boone: I think our ambition is to be D.A.. I don't see her as someone who was going to seek other office. I think she is a born prosecutor. And I think we'll know pretty soon when she's made of if she's going to have to make some extremely tough decisions in the early days of her tenure.
Steve Fennessy: Our thanks to Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Christian Boone. As Fani Willis prepares to be Fulton County's next D.A, she's assembled a transition team that includes former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, former NBA star Shaquille O'Neal, and the rapper and activist Killer Mike. As for what's next for Paul Howard after he leaves the D.A.’s office next January? He had this to say the night he lost reelection:
Paul Howard: It is really tough when you are me and you have to tell your kids to watch out for the police and to be careful. I don't think that's the way we ought to live in this country. And so I'm gonna be working to change that in some effort, I don't know exactly what that'll be. But I want it to change.
Steve Fennessy: I'm Steve Fennessy. This is Georgia Today, a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show at GPB.org/GeorgiaToday or anywhere you get podcasts. Please leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. Our producers are Sean Powers and Pria Mahadevan. Thanks for listening, we'll see you next week.
Transcript by Eva Rothenberg