Totten Touts Tenure at Bulloch County Republican Breakfast

Ogeechee Judicial Circuit District Attorney Daphne Totten addressed the Bulloch County Republican Party Saturday morning and touted her track record in elected office as reason for voters to give her another term.  

Totten presented to a crowd of approximately thirty at Eagle Creek Brewery for the March party meeting. Among those present for the presentation were at least nine individuals from her office and her husband, Dirk. 

Totten spoke for a little over an hour on a number of things ranging from her background, the job of the District Attorney’s Office, cases she considers notable as they pertain to convictions, bond, and inter-agency relationships.

She spent a few minutes discussing her own background as she was first elected in 2020 in an unopposed election which took place during the pandemic. This time, with an opponent in Statesboro attorney Robert Busbee and no COVID-19 restrictions, the campaign trail looks much different. 

Totten said she comes from a family that has served the public in various capacities over the years and so it was instilled in her early that it wasn’t ‘if’ she would serve when she grew up, but ‘how.’ She shared briefly about going to the University of Georgia for undergrad and Mercer University for law school, but always desiring to return to south Georgia. Her return led to her clerking for Judge Robbie Turner and Judge Lovett Bennett when he was still in private practice. She then went on to work for the District Attorney’s Office.

Presentation on Operations 

Leadership in District Attorney’s Association of Georgia – Totten said she was elected to serve as the Secretary of the voluntary organization which is comprised of 49 of the 51 district attorneys across the state. She’s slated to begin serving as Vice President in July of this year.

“That’s really important to me because we have our local community and what I’m doing here in the Ogeechee Circuit, but there’s also a bigger picture going on in the state of Georgia with prosecutors and with all of the things that relate to my job in general. Being in a leadership position is allowing me to be in the center of that.”

Bonds – “I will always oppose bond for the most violent and repeat offenders.”

Totten said bond is often set by magistrate judges and the bond schedules held by the Sheriffs. .

“Most crimes are listed on this bond schedule…that’s not something that I put together, but during the twenty-one years that I’ve been involved at the DA’s office, we on two occasions, that I can recall, we have worked with the Sheriff’s Office and the superior court judges in drafting the bond schedule. But the judges are very involved in that because ultimately the judge is who we’re going to be in front of whether trying the case or entering a plea.” She said if it isn’t among the more violent offenses, the second thing they consider is whether or not the person has a criminal history, is on probation, or is on parole.

“I’d like to think of myself as a tough prosecutor, you know, tough on crime. People who should get bond, get bond, in my opinion,” Totten said. “Most of the time.”

Training Other Agencies – Totten said her staff works with law enforcement to train them on every topic, including search warrants and drug cases. 

COVID-19 Delays & the Courts – Totten said Chief Judge Gates Peed was quick to implement Zoom and other electronic means for handling court matters, saying he didn’t want the circuit to just ‘sit around and not have court.’ She said that allowed the circuit to get things – other than grand jury and jury trials – moving again within three weeks. 

In Bulloch County alone, she said, the first grand jury presentment had ~230 cases, as opposed to the usual 50 or 60 cases. She said Bulloch also had seventeen homicide cases that made their way to the district attorney’s office.

While jury trials did not resume until June 2021, Totten said she had nothing but praise for her office. “Not just my office, but the public defender’s office, our judges, they really helped set the tone for how much court we’re going to have. They’re the ones that put together the dockets. And y’all we have good judges in this circuit.”

Closing More Cases Than They’re Opening  

“If you see, we’re closing more cases than we’re opening, which is what you should be doing.” She showed charts depicting fewer cases closed in 2019, 2020 and in 2021, when jury trials were only permitted for half the year, than in 2022. 
*2023 data, Totten said, has not yet been published but she believes people will see the same trend.

84% Conviction Rate at Trial – Totten shared that when cases go to a jury trial or a bench trial, 16% of cases have resulted in a ‘not guilty’ verdict. The percentage of cases that go to trial, she said, is very small, but there have been more trials lately than in recent years. 

“Losses, if you want to call them losses, or the ‘not guilty’ verdicts that we’ve had, most of them have been isolated to sexual assault cases. And most of those, in talking to jurors, were not unanimous verdicts. As y’all know, to get a guilty verdict, we have to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt and we have to have 12 jurors vote for guilty or not guilty. Most of the cases that we’ve had started out as hung jurors, 11-1, 10-2, 7-5 and sometimes juror decide that they’re not going to, you know the ones that are in favor of one side or the other, we end up with a hung jury and if that happens, we re-try the case. Sometimes they just get frustrated and want to go home.”

Totten said the statewide conviction rate is roughly 77% at trial.

99% Conviction Rate

“Most of our cases resolve through a plea of some sort…we have resolved about 4,400 cases and those cases have been resolved by either trial – in front of a jury or a bench trial, or either a plea. When you consider all of that, we have over a 99% conviction rate.”

Sexual Assault Cases in Bulloch County

“Most of the time, sexual assault cases in Bulloch County involve people between the ages of 18-25, lots of times they’re on or near campus, and some are alcohol-facilitated. So there’s a lot of things that have to do with the facts that make it different than a stranger rape.”

A duty to represent victims  – This slide was in Totten’s visual presentation but was skipped over in discussion.

Accountability Courts – Totten touched on Drug Court, which she said is the pathway her office recommends people who have an addiction. Mental Health Court, she said, can also be recommended by her office as well as anyone else, including staff at the jail.

“People who need help, we try to get them there,” she said. “We often don’t agree to a bond for someone who’s a drug addict.”

Very Little Staff Turnover – “I’ve got a full staff and had virtually no turnover.”

Notable Cases Listed by Totten
  • Dustin Cowart, who was convicted for the murder of Ray “Buddy” Beasley. 
  • Ashlyn Griffin, the domestic violence victim who was convicted of Aggravated Assault for shooting and killing her boyfriend, Brandon McCray, in self-defense. 
  • William Marcus Wilson, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of Haley Hutcheson in Statesboro
  • Lee Allen Mayhew who was convicted of the shooting death of Bonnie Lanier Rushing in Bulloch County
  • Dimario Garrett, who was convicted of murdering Dmytrias Smith in Rincon.
  • Justin Isaak Jammison, who was convicted of murdering Jamison Lemons in Effingham County
  • Spencer Robbins who was convicted of murdering Renee Reagan in Effingham County
  • Alonzo Stewart who entered a guilty plea for the murder of Keturah Mobley in Bulloch County
  • Anthony Carasco who was sentenced for voluntary manslaughter for the death of Donnie Brown in Bulloch County
  • Charles Librizzi who was charged with murdering Kathern Scott in Screven County
  • Victor Boatright who entered a guilty plea for the murder of LePhilip Wright
  • John Morris sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Dolan Blanchard in Screven County

After presenting these guilty pleas and convictions, Totten said, “Being a prosecutor isn’t about getting convictions. It’s about doing the right thing, every time. That’s what I believe and that’s what I try to do.”

“I couldn’t do my job without the da’s in my office. I’m not the one trying these cases,” she said. “I tried some of them and we’ve got a death penalty case in Effingham that I’m part of, but we couldn’t do the job without the staff.”

Questions from the Audience
“What’s the status of the Crocker case in Effingham?”

Totten said the state is ready for trial and has been ready. She said she’s asked for 90 days notice to subpoena some of the witnesses who are federal witnesses and require more notice, but said, “We’re ready. We’ve not asked for a continuance…That happened in 2017. It’s a tragedy that it’s still out there but it’s not the fault of anyone in my office.”
[Note – the case happened in 2018, not 2017]

“With open borders and all, how are you going to start treating illegal aliens after you prosecute them?”

Totten: “We handle those the way we’ve always handled them, which there is a protocol for that and it’s not a protocol set by me. But first of all, if someone commits a crime and they’re arrested by law enforcement, we’re going to prosecute them regardless of their status.I’ll still send them to prison because I don’t want them to go over the border and come right back over. But ICE is notified as soon as they come in the jail.”

“Did the Governor sign a bill this week allowing the Governor to replace certain district attorneys and for what reason?”

Totten said he did and she was one of 24 district attorneys to sign a letter last year in support of the legislation.

My biggest concern is why we’re not having speedy trials. We’ve got too many people sitting in jail and now we’ve got an overcrowded jail and we’ve got to build a new one. We need to move along here.”

“The first thing I would say is that every defendant has the right to file what’s called a ‘speedy trial demand.’ And if they choose, through their attorney, to file a speedy trial demand, by law, we have to give them a trial within six months. Reality is, most attorneys and their clients don’t file a speedy trial demand. That is a right. I have a tool box of tools to move things along, there are also constitutional rights that the defendant has and one of those is a speedy trial demand if they so choose through their attorney. 

“The other thing I would tell you, we have a murder trial that was set for April, its three or four years old, people are in jail and one of the defendants got a new attorney and he decided, he hired this attorney as I understand, this attorney requested a continuance and it was granted by the court over the objection of the state. Those things are beyond our control.”

“I will say that some people think that we at the DA’s office control when a case goes to trial. That is not the case. The dockets are dictated by the judges. The judges set their own dockets and we show up for court and the judge wants an announcement. There have been a few times that we’ve said we’re not ready, but that’s been due to the GBI.”

“You can look at our jail list. The jail is not full.”

“I thought every individual was entitled to a speedy trial. Now you’re saying they have to apply for a speedy trial? And if not, how come people are in jail for two years waiting for a trial? Why”

“They are entitled on a basic level to what is called a speedy trial. That’s a constitutional right. The speedy trial demand is a thing the defendant’s counsel can file.”

Audience – “That doesn’t make sense. It’s too much power.”

“I hear what you’re saying, I mean. It’s cumbersome because we typically have court Monday through Friday and not always on Friday because jurors don’t like always having trials on Friday. Your question is actually a very good question. We only have so many days each year. We have senior judges that are being brought in to preside over jury trials so that we can have as much court as possible. Part of the problem in Bulloch County is we have two courtrooms…there are several layers to this problem in my opinion. We need more courtrooms.”

Totten closed by saying she has an open door policy, offering both her office and cell phone number to the audience. 

The Ogeechee Judicial Circuit encompasses Bulloch, Effingham, Jenkins, and Screven counties. 90% of the population in the circuit is in Bulloch and Effingham counties.
Early voting begins April 29. Election Day is May 21.

Jessica Szilagyi

Jessica Szilagyi is Publisher of TGV News She focuses primarily on state and local politics as well as issues in law enforcement and corrections. She has a background in Political Science with a focus in local government and has a Master of Public Administration from the University of Georgia.

Jessica is a "Like It Or Not" contributor for Fox5 in Atlanta and a commentator on the 'Let Me Tell You Why You're Wrong Podcast.'

Sign up for her weekly newsletter: http://eepurl.com/gzYAZT

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