Chatham County District Attorney Shalena Cook-Jones speaking at a NAACP meeting.

Chatham County District Attorney Shalena Cook-Jones speaking at a NAACP meeting.

Credit: The Current

Chatham County District Attorney Shalena Cook Jones, who is fighting sanctions from a federal judge and ethics complaint by a state body, said she will run for reelection in 2024.

Cook Jones, a Democrat who came to office three years ago promising to counter what she considers harmful state policies prioritizing punitive mass incarceration, told The Current that she believes she has a strong record of accomplishments to run on despite what she dismisses as partisan attacks against her. The DA previously filed paperwork to accept campaign contributions, but this is the first time she has publicly stated she is running again. 

Cook Jones took over as Chatham County’s top prosecutor following a bitter, hyperpartisan campaign running against the incumbent D.A. Meg Heap, who had been her boss. Her tenure, however, has been rocky.

Experienced prosecutors have left her office in droves, and the lack of staffing, coupled with a Covid pandemic-induced spike in violent crime, means she has struggled to cope with a large backlog in court cases. 

Local judicial officers, from lawyers to judges, have privately vented frustrations over her management of her office. State Republicans earlier this year passed a prosecutor oversight bill that was designed to sideline so-called progressive D.A.s like her. Then, in October, a federal judge slammed Cook Jones’ for unethical and untruthful conduct in a civil case brought against her by a former employee. Recently, the State Ethics Commission filed a complaint against her over failing to file necessary campaign documents. 

Still, Cook Jones says her chances of reelection are strong, once the public hears about the good she says her office has accomplished.  

“We’ve promised them a court system that works, that is efficient, effective and equitable and that’s what we’ve been working on and we’ll fulfill that promise,” Cook Jones said. “I’m looking forward to telling the public about the work that we have done.”

Cook Jones told The Current in an interview Wednesday that her office has successfully closed more serious violent felonies in the last three years than in the six years prior to that.

She said that Chatham prosecutors have ensured that victims are receiving justice at a faster rate than her predecessor, while defendants are spending less time in prison. These positive changes, she said, have come from shifting resources to focus on felonies instead of what she calls “junk cases” —  her term for cases with weak evidence involving crimes that pose less threat to the public. 

These actions, however, are what her political opponents cite as evidence of her poor performance. Anthony Burton, a Republican and former assistant DA who has already announced his intention to run against Cook Jones, calls her a threat to public safety for allowing unacceptable plea deals in violent felony cases.

“I don’t think that I’d be bragging that I pled out more murders to manslaughter, in cases where people have been reoffending, and she hasn’t bothered to even revoke their probation,” Burton said. 

“If elected, I’m going to bring back the office to what it used to be,” Burton said, “One that cares about victims and wins trials.”

Candidate and former assistant DA, Jennifer “Jenny” Parker, said Cook Jones’ tenure has caused grave concerns in the legal community, and her reelection wouldn’t help the county.

“We wish her well, but 40 assistant district attorneys have left since she was elected,” Parker said. “We believe it’s time for an experienced prosecutor who can bring stability to the office and produce the kind of results that our community deserves.”

Former employees have told The Current that statistics about convictions are not kept up to date at Cook Jones’ office and criticized her transparency with the public.

The DA conceded to The Current that her public communication has been weak, and she vowed to improve if she won re-election.


Judge’s sanctions

One of the biggest threats to Cook Jones’ candidacy and her professional reputation, however, was the unusual federal sanctions in October that publicly questioned her ethics and professionalism. The judge’s order also creates a potential financial challenge for the DA. 

The sanctions came in relation to a civil suit by one of her former prosecutors, Skye Musson, who alleges that Cook Jones fostered a hostile workplace. Cook Jones repeatedly missed deposition dates and created an intentional scheduling conflict, U.S. District Judge R. Stan Baker ruled in his 50-page sanction order.

Cook Jones disagreed and filed a notice to appeal the order with a new lawyer, The Current previously reported. She said she missed the deposition because she was busy prosecuting a rape trial. 

“The district attorney is first counsel in every case in Chatham County, but he might not know that because he’s a federal judge,” Cook Jones said. “All of these cases belong to me and I’m responsible for all of them.”

It is unclear how quickly her appeal will occur. Primaries in the DA race will occur in May. 

Meanwhile, the Department of Administrative Services, which insures state officials for legal liability, sent a letter to Cook Jones dated Nov. 13 that the agency would no longer cover the cost of defending her in the Musson case.

“As set forth in the Court’s order, your repeated failures to timely respond to discovery and appear for a Court ordered deposition clearly show you did not fulfill your obligations under the (General Liability Agreement) policy,” the letter states.

So far, legal bills in the Musson case have cost the state $33,000, according to a DOAS accounting document. Cook Jones characterized the DOAS decision against covering her ongoing legal challenge as premature and politically motivated.

“Never in the history of the state of Georgia has any district attorney had to pay any judgment out of their pocket personally,” Cook Jones said. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Department of Administrative Services and their policy is actually overseen by the Attorney General Chris Carr. So I believe that all of this is part of a coordinated effort to put extra pressure on me as a candidate.”

She said she is working with DOAS to reinstate liability coverage.

As far as the ethics complaint from Sept. 6, officials said in a letter that Cook Jones has not filed eight necessary campaign documents required of public officials. The DA said she reached an agreement with the agency to rectify the complaint. 

Cook Jones said that the challenges and experience in her first term as DA would allow her to have a stronger second term.

“Part of the reason I am going to run again is because I’m familiar with what it has been like to resurrect the system, to get (the) grand jury up and running, to staff our courtrooms to handle the (major crimes) cases across all six courts,” Cook Jones said. “It takes a DA who’s going to think outside the box and be creative and that’s what I think I’ve been able to do effectively. I hope that I’ll be able to continue to do that after 2024.”

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with The Current.