Chatham County District Attorney Shalena Cook Jones and her former top deputy prosecutor, Jenny Parker, took to the stage Monday at the Coastal Georgia Center in Savannah for a Democratic candidates' forum ahead of the May 21 primary election.

Jones is seeking a second four-year term in office, after having been elected in 2020 as the first Black woman to serve as the chief prosecutor for Chatham County — Georgia's largest county outside of metro Atlanta.

Parker — a prosecutor with the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit in Statesboro — is looking to unseat her former boss and advance to the general election against Andre Pretorius, a Republican attorney who works for the Chatham County government.

To give readers a closer look at each candidate in their own words, GPB has transcribed remarks verbatim from key moments during the forum, which was hosted by the League of Women Voters of Coastal Georgia and broadcast by Savannah ABC affiliate WJCL. No forum was held for the Republican nomination, as Pretorius is running unopposed in his party's primary.



This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. A full video recording of the Democratic candidates' forum for Chatham County District Attorney can be viewed here.

Opening statements

Shalena Cook Jones: It has been my distinct honor and pleasure to serve as your District Attorney for these past several years. I want you to know that I do this job for one reason and one reason only, and that is because I believe in justice, fairness and equity. My early childhood experiences, education at Spelman College, my law degree from [the University of Georgia] Law School and the 22 years plus that I've been practicing have pointed me all to one conclusion, and that is that our criminal justice system has to do three things: it has to protect victims, it has to respect the constitutional rights of the accused and it has to promote public safety.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the true meaning of justice for all. For me, this race is not about politics or popularity. It's about a proven plan to make sure our justice system is fair and effective for everyone. I believe I am the only candidate on the ballot who has that proven plan. And that's why I'm seeking reelection as your district attorney.

Jenny Parker: I have been a prosecutor for almost 25 years. I graduated from the University of Georgia Law School in 1999 and became a prosecutor, and have worked as a prosecutor my entire adult career. Being a prosecutor for me is not just a job, not just a career. It is a calling. It is part of who I am and a very important way for me to serve my community. Chatham County is a growing, diverse, unique place and it deserves a professional, fully staffed, experienced prosecutor's office.

And we do not have that right now. I have about 12 experienced prosecutors willing to come back with me as part of a team, and our District Attorney's office needs that team right now, because the office has lost over 40 [assistant] district attorneys over the last three years. I have served as a chief assistant in the [Chatham County District Attorney's] office and in other leadership roles, and have also had leadership roles in multiple community organizations. I have the experience and the leadership ability to take this office where it needs to go.

On improving the District Attorney's office

Jenny Parker: The number one thing that needs improvement is staffing. The attorneys that had experience in this office — this office historically has been one that had career prosecutors and, since the current DA was elected, they have left. And they have not left because they have gone off to law firms to make more money. They've left to go work in other DA's offices. They are working in Effingham County., they're working in Bulloch County, they're working in Bryan County, they're working in Glynn County. And we need those people back here. We trained those people and invested in them, and now they're giving the benefit of that to other counties.

Those are our prosecutors, and we need to have them back here. So, first, getting back those experienced prosecutors. There is no Special Victims Unit in the office due to staffing. That is very important. There have to be specially trained prosecutors to prosecute those types of cases. We need trauma-informed prosecutors prosecuting those sexual assaults, domestic violence, crimes against children.

Shalena Cook Jones: Because my opponent has not been a District Attorney, and hasn't negotiated budgets with the commission, she is vastly and deeply unaware of what the real problem is. It's an economic problem. At the end of the day, compensation plus a reasonable caseload equals employee retention. I have said repeatedly that our office has bursting caseloads, and that has been the truth for quite some time. But I'd like — I have receipts and I'd like to bring the data. My opponent has touted that there have been 44 people who've left the office. It's actually 39. She wouldn't know that because she's not the DA. Of the 39 people who've left the office, 22 of them have left because they moved out of state, they got a better job offer, they took more money and because they had to go back with family. Two of them were terminated. Three left for medical reasons, one retired and two retired and asked to come back.

That leaves only nine ADAs, including my opponent. I would also like to point out that this is not so much about the people who left. It's about our effectiveness. We have tried more murders, serious violent felonies, and DUIs in the three-and-a-half years that I've been there than they did before Covid, [when they had] more prosecutors, so to speak. And so true leaders know how to do more with less. The numbers don't lie. And that's what we've been doing since I've been in office.


On why the office's Special Victims Unit has closed during Cook Jones' tenure as District Attorney (question only for Cook Jones)

Shalena Cook Jones: What I can tell you is that my opponent professes to care about victims in special cases. When I took office two-and-a-half years ago, there were 110 rapes [and] child molestation [cases] that were between two-and-a-half and nine-and-a-half years old. For someone who declares to care so much about special victims, where was that enthusiasm then, when she was working in the office as a 20-year prosecutor?

What I did when I came into the office is make sure that we — it's not my goal to have decentralized the Special Victims Unit, because I started in that office as a special victims prosecutor and an elder abuse prosecutor. I know how hard that is. What I did when I came in is trained each of my ADAs so that all of them know how to try every kind of case, whether it's sexual assault [or] child molestation. I have supplemented them with training because that's what a strong DA's office does, instead of holding trial talent and specialized knowledge in the hands of a few. Does change take time? Yes. But overall, that is the change our office needs to build a stronger office overall.

On work culture within the District Attorney's office (question only for Parker)

Jenny Parker: During the first year of her term, I oversaw the attorneys in the office and we had a lot less turnover in the office. Over the course of the second year, my job description changed about six times, and that happened to lots of other people in the office. The office became chaotic and people started leaving. And it is impossible that you could train a single prosecutor to handle every kind of case. It is impossible that the District Attorney has trained people to handle sexual assaults and child molestations, because she's never tried those kinds of cases herself. I have. I could train people. I have had extensive national training in special victims cases, have personally tried those kinds of cases and can train people in them. There is no one left in the office now that is capable of training people to handle those kinds of cases.

On management philosophies and personnel decisions within the District Attorney's office

Shalena Cook Jones: My opponent was in my office for two years before she left. She had one job. Her job was to train all of the ADAs in the office on trial technique and how to handle cases. Part of the reason they left is because my opponent — though a very skilled prosecutor, and that's why I selected her for that role — was not able to be an effective leader. During my time with her, she had two consultants, one of whom is sitting in this very room today, who had to remind her of how to keep up with her job. Although I told her she was supposed to train these ADAs every time they went to a murder trial, she chose not to do it. And so to complain now that ADAs left or that our department is deprived of resources, she has to take some accountability for that because that was her job, too.

Jenny Parker: I have a very different leadership philosophy than the District Attorney. The District Attorney's vision of leadership is a very high-level network, sort of, you know, CEO vision of leadership where she does not have a lot of contact with the people doing the job. And I don't think that works with attorneys. I think that trained attorneys want a seat at the table, where they have a say in how their cases are handled. And I envision leadership more as me being the hub of a wheel, with them as the spokes.

I'm very good at collaborating with people and working with them to support them and make decisions together. And I would strongly dispute what the District Attorney said about my leadership abilities and my training of other attorneys. I have trained attorneys, law enforcement officers, I have been a trainer for the National District Attorneys Association, I've trained [forensic] nurses and I have mentored dozens of assistant district attorneys who would happily tell you that.