Screven County Commissioner Allison Willis appeared in Magistrate Court Monday in defense against a case for arrest warrants brought by her own daughter.
Represented by her lawyer, Augusta defense attorney Pierce Blitch, Willis testified on her own behalf and fielded questions from Screven County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Alan Anderson.
Willis’ daughter, 19-year-old Samantha Lee, filed a report in early July alleging Willis physically assaulted her during what began as a verbal argument. Lee then took to social media to post pictures of herself with what she said were injuries from the skirmish, which reportedly occurred at Willis’ family home. Lee is currently pregnant.
Media Coverage of the Incident
An article appeared in The Sylvania Times after Lee’s social media post spread across the county. The piece left no room for the presumption of innocence, asserting in the subtitle, “Allison Willis strikes pregnant daughter” followed by several quotas from Lee on the incident.
The Sylvania Times piece also repeatedly referred to Willis as “Commissioner Willis,” insinuating that the alleged incident occurred with Willis acting in her official capacity as a county commissioner.
The Sylvania Times article only fueled speculation about which party was to blame and Willis made no comment about the incident outside of her decision to refrain from commenting while the matter is pending in court.
How did the case end up in Magistrate Court?
In a mid-July edition of The Sylvania Times, Sheriff Mike Kile was quoted saying “The case has been turned over to the magistrate court to schedule a hearing on the matter.” The quote followed the acknowledgement that Lee filed a report and the Office opened an investigation.
In Monday’s hearing, the pre-warrant application was filed by Investigator Alan Anderson, instead of Samantha Lee. Anderson sat at the petitioner’s table and presented evidence for the judge’s consideration. The move was a non-traditional one, as in most jurisdictions, the sheriff’s office would have completed an investigation after it interviewed involved parties and collected evidence. The investigation would have then determined whether or not probable cause existed to warrant an arrest. If so, an arrest would be made. If not, the case would be closed.
The Office of Sheriff Mike Kile opted not to take any action toward an investigation for reasons unknown to the public at this time.
County officials in Screven often erroneously refer to the Sheriff’s Office as a “Department,” however, under Georgia law, it is a constitutional office with a duly elected and independent official, not one which answers to commissioners. Therefore, Kile could have investigated the case and sought warrants if it saw fit. If any further conflict of interest existed, the Sheriff’s Office could have requested the assistance of the GBI. In either situation, if an arrest was made, the SO or the GBI would work with prosecutors to pursue the case in State Court or Superior Court, not in Magistrate Court.
Because Kile’s Office did not take any of the three options for action —arrest, close the file, or call the GBI – the case ended up in Magistrate Court where an accuser can petition a magistrate judge to issue warrants against the accused. (See OCGA § 17-4-40) In these instances, the burden lies solely on the accuser to convince the court that probable cause exists to warrant an arrest. The accused has no duty to testify and has the right to invoke their 5th Amendment right to remain silent because the matter could end up in state or superior court. Accusers can opt to be represented by legal counsel, but are not required to do so. In a traditional setting, Lee would have been the Petitioner, as there is no “prosecutor” and she must plead her own case.
Why use a Magistrate judge from another county?
Screven County Magistrate Judge James “Jimmy” Griner, Jr. recused himself from the case in early July. He was not required to do so, as he, like Mike Kile, is a duly elected court official who acts independently of the Board of Commissioners.
Nevertheless, the recusal prompted the appointment of Effingham County Chief Magistrate Judge Scott Lewis. Lewis is a former law enforcement officer with the Effingham County Sheriff’s Office. He was elected in 2016 and is currently serving in his second term of office.
Monday’s hearing at the Screven County Jail Courtroom was attended by Willis, her husband, and three of her other children. Lee was also in attendance, as were at least five members of the public. The Georgia Virtue was the only media outlet to attend the hearing.
Witnesses were not sequestered and Judge Lewis began by informing Willis of her rights. He explained the purpose of the hearing was not to determine guilt or innocence, but to determine whether or not the case should be pursued further.
Investigator Alan Anderson presented the report filed by Lee at Screven County hospital in early July as well as pictures taken on the date of the incident and in the days that followed. Anderson told the Court that in the days that followed the incident, Lee made an additional written statement at the Sheriff’s Office and participated in an interview with law enforcement. More pictures were taken of Lee at that time. Anderson also referenced an audio recording of part of the argument between Willis and Lee.
Anderson stated that he contacted Willis after speaking with Lee, however Willis was out of town and returned to the Sheriff’s Office to provide a written statement and a verbal statement upon her return. She also provided the Sheriff’s Office with photos, which depicted scratch marks on her face, broken eye glasses, minor injuries, and pictures of Lee’s belongings strewn about on the floor. Willis’ testimony to law enforcement was that she acted in self-defense.
“Both parties acknowledge this incident occurred,” Anderson said. He then turned and asked Lee if she wished to testify. She shrugged and approached the witness stand before being sworn in by Judge Lewis.
Lee detailed much of what she referenced in her police report, specifically about the argument related to childcare provided by her younger sibling. “I was going to stand up for myself, I was not going to stand down and my mama doesn’t like when I scream over her,” Lee testified. She then went on to describe what was in the audio recording she turned over to law enforcement. “So, what else?”
Anderson then asked if she hit her mother. “I didn’t hit her at all. I only tried to push her back. I was just blocking my face. When the physical part stopped, I laughed and said, ‘You’re going to jail.’” Lee then said she threatened to call the police, which prompted another altercation.
Upon cross examination, Willis’ attorney asked Lee when her last instance of methamphetamine use occurred. “Before I got pregnant,” she said. “Have you ever hit your mom?” he asked her.
“No,” Lee replied. “I take that back. One time, they saw a friend coming to pick me up. I didn’t have a vehicle because she wanted it back and she and my brother tried to pick me up. I wasn’t in the wrong. I hit her back and kicked her. But that’s the only time.”
WIllis Takes the Stand
Willis took the stand and testified for upwards of forty-five minutes. She detailed what she called a ‘problematic’ back and forth of her daughter moving out and in over and over. She shared her suspicions of drug use over the last year and a half, which she believed altered Lee’s behavior. She echoed the story about Lee being picked up by friends, but said Lee was kicking her seat and kicked her in the jaw before Willis’ son tried to subdue her and control her.
At times, Willis was emotional on the stand and said that she made repeated attempts to either help her daughter or get her the help she needed. She said the attempts were stymied because of arguments each time. Willis also detailed a handful of incidents where others were witness to her behavior and one instance where the mother of Lee’s former boyfriend contacted Willis to pick up Lee because she was ‘beating on’ her son. The text message exchanges of that conversation were provided to the court for consideration.
Willis also told the court that she was the one to contact law enforcement just months before after she and her husband discovered pills, without a prescription, in the vehicle Lee was driving.
As for the incident in question, Willis said the situation came to a head because Willis told Lee she needed to leave that day. “She told me, “I’m not leaving until Sunday.” Willis stated she went to grab Lee’s belongings, prompting Lee to lunge at her. She was flailing and clawing, which prompted Willis to put her in a headlock to try to keep her from hitting her. At some point, the two fell to the ground. When Willis went to get up, she said Lee clawed her face. She said she provided the glasses as well as the photos to law enforcement to show them that the marks on her face could not have come from the glass alone.
On cross examination, Investigator Anderson asked if the acts “occurred in the presence of minors or within the earshot of minors.” Willis replied that they did.
With no other witnesses from either side, Judge Lewis asked if anyone else was in the bedroom at the time of the incident, to which both parties said there were not.
“Was anyone else interviewed?”
“No judge,” Anderson told the Court.
“This is a bad incident. Family violence is not something we take lightly. Before we go any further, what does Samantha want out of this?” Lewis asked. “I’m asking because family is forever and something you have to deal with forever. Just because Investigator Anderson presents this evidence to me does not mean I can’t go against everyone and put both parties in jail.”
“They didn’t issue a warrant because of my past,” Lee said. “I didn’t do anything wrong. I want the law to be done. I would have just left if I hadn’t been pregnant. But if nothing happens legally, it is what it is.”
Before the judge issued a decision, Blitch asked the court to dismiss the warrants and consider issuing them for Lee instead.
Lewis ultimately opted to dismiss the warrants.
“The audio wouldn’t have given us a lot on who the primary aggressor is. Looking at the totality of the circumstances, who the primary aggressor was was not established. One of the key problems I’m having with just putting one party in jail is that Samantha said in a statement at the hospital, she made it clear that she was not backing down. She may not have been the first physical aggressor, but she was a primary aggressor. The primary aggressor just has not been identified.”
Lewis continued, “I could put both parties in jail for Affray, but then both parties have to deal with it. And I don’t think that’s the best remedied with the evidence I have heard today. So I’m going to dismiss this. But I am going to order a good behavior warrant and order no contact between any parties for six months. We will re-evaluate after six months if we need to.”
Blitch asked if the order could be extended to twelve months and include the children of Willis. Lewis conceded the extension to the children, and to Lee’s future child, but said six months would be sufficient now.