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COLUMN: Why the Trooper Case Crumbled in Screven County

The following article is an opinion piece and reflects the views of only the author and not those of TheGeorgiaVirtue.com.


How did an officer-involved shooting that garnered national attention for its supposed egregiousness fizzle out into an unindicted case with only the testimony of the Trooper and nearly nonexistent media coverage? 

The short answer to the question posed is that the charges are not supported by any compilation of evidence. It would seem that the story should stop there, but that wouldn’t make for a good column ripe with explanation. 

Plus, a more analytical examination of everything that happened over the last 10 months reveals much more. 

There is a villain in every story and in this one, there happens to be several — each with a different role and a different cross to bear as they contemplate how to repair their reputations in the wake of Monday’s decision. 

“A villain must be a thing of power, handled with delicacy and grace. He must be wicked enough to excite our aversion, strong enough to arouse our fear, human enough to awaken some transient gleam of sympathy. We must triumph in his downfall, yet not barbarously nor with contempt, and the close of his career must be in harmony with all its previous development.” —Agnes Repplier

Ogeechee Judicial Circuit District Attorney Daphne Totten

I will give Mrs. Totten credit – she was very involved in the entire case and didn’t pawn it off on an assistant DA. From the night of the shooting to the read out of the No Bill of Indictment on Monday, she was present. The problem, however, is that she considered any media coverage of the case to be detrimental for the state and anyone who questioned her decisions was ostracized. 

This was publicly evidenced first by her complaints to the judge in March in open court after video cameras were permitted by the press (following proper protocols, mind you) merely because she wasn’t notified ahead of time. 

Then, in an April 2021 filing before the Georgia Supreme Court, Totten’s office chastised efforts by the Thompson defense team to provide their client with a rigorous defense, calling the case a “media circus” because a great deal of the pre-trial discussions and proceedings were taking place in open court. Of course, it wasn’t evidence that was compromised but rather the supporting pillars for the credibility of the district attorney’s office. 

What Totten seemingly ignored is that structurally sound cases don’t fall victim to media coverage or scrutiny. Over the last 10 months, there were a number of opportunities to slow, stall, scale back, or halt the case altogether, but instead the office put the brick on the accelerator. (Don’t worry – the battery wasn’t tilted toward the firewall and the negative cable wasn’t loose)

Totten showed her true colors when she: 

  • caved to outside political pressure in her decision-making, which was evident when those power players thanked and praised her work during press conference; 
  • assisted in making the decision to arrest Thompson 7 days after the shooting based on the evidence but, when questioned by a judge in March, said the office was still not ready to present the case. This came after she said in January 2021 that when the case moved forward would “depend on how the evidence develops;”
  • abruptly canceled grand jury presentment at 4:59 p.m. the business day before the January empaneling, citing a backlog of cases, “potential legislation” from the Georgia legislature (which never came to fruition and would not apply even if it did), and total autonomy over the grand jury process by which she had the authority to start and stop processes without offering an explanation to anyone;
  • ignored the hypocrisy of arguing on April 5, 2021 before the same grand jury that ultimately no billed Thompson that four different individuals should face felony charges for the same offenses Julian Lewis would have faced had the August 7, 2020 incident ended differently.
  • refused to concede that after three prosecutors spent eight hours with grand jurors and a no bill was still the result, perhaps the evidence just isn’t there. Instead, she has avoided ruling out bringing charges once again for consideration by another grand jury. 

If at any time any of these actions were taken because she wanted to make a name for herself, she can consider that task accomplished. Daphne Totten is a household name. 

Assistant District Attorney Barclay Black 

While at times it has been difficult to determine who was steering the ship, his demand for financial documentation and donation data on how Thompson was paying his legal fees was vindictive, among other things, and a judge agreed that Black’s outlandish motion need not be granted. 

Black also argued against the Court ordering bond for Thompson so he could work and provide for his family on the basis of there being “no proof [Thompson] wouldn’t commit another felony.” He also stated that Thompson should remain behind bars because of possible threats and witness intimidation, citing testimony by the Lewis family months earlier. But the testimony he referenced wasn’t about threats made by Thompson or his family, rather that the Lewis family thought it was intimidating that ‘power players’ in the community donated to help Thompson. He undoubtedly contributed to Thompson’s unusually extended and unnecessary stay in jail. 

The district attorney’s office generally has given the perception in court that it is offended by the idea of having the burden of proof. 

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation 

The GBI, in this case, went beyond the scope of what is supposed to be their duty in serving as an unbiased third party that collects evidence for consideration by the district attorney’s office. That has been evidenced all along as attorneys for the family of Julian Lewis have clung to the “conclusions” of a couple of agents, one of whom is extremely green. Findings of fact be damned.

Instead, citing that Thompson posed a threat to the public and warranted an immediate arrest, the GBI charged Thompson before the investigation was even complete. This irreparably harmed the Thompson family while simultaneously preparing the Lewis family for disappointment as the agency perpetuated a narrative that was “wholly unsupported” by the course of events and the evidence made available to the public. 

I still don’t understand how an agency accountable to the Governor with a director appointed by the Governor (the GBI) can independently investigate another agency with a director appointed by the Governor that serves at the pleasure of the Governor (DPS/GSP), but here we are.

(Now-former) Special Agent in Charge John Durden

Durden, who retired out of the blue after an audit of the cases handled by his office was conducted by the upper command staff in the GBI, failed in this case when he: 

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  • passed over more seasoned agents familiar with OIS and assigned the case to an agent who had never been the lead agent on a case of this magnitude or subject matter before; 
  • left the Region 5 office in shambles, in large part because of the divide in the office over the handling of this case. 

Agent Dustin Peak 

Peak perpetuated the reign of the ineptocracy when he: 

  • concluded that Julian Lewis was not a threat at the time of the shooting based on his 0 years of experience working as an automobile mechanic. Much of his testimony relied on what happened to the 1996 Sentra when he personally tightened a cable at least two hours after a crash;
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  • relied on a vehicle he deemed inoperable because it was off when he arrived on scene 2 hours after the shooting, ignoring that the first witness on the scene said the lights were on in the vehicle and the second witness on the scene said he was “not sure”;
  • failed to comprehend the difference between a roadside, a ditch, and a ravine;
  • ignored the computer software glitches and the malfunctioning equipment in Thompson’s vehicle, which could have easily impacted the already questionable timeline the GBI concocted based on an audio attached to the dash camera recording;
  • stated in a preliminary hearing that the drugs in Lewis’ system at the time of the shooting and the felony offenses leading up to the shooting were “not relevant” to the use of force.

Essentially, the only things relevant to the investigation were Peak’s own opinions. 

The damage these two individuals precipitated cannot be undone. It’s problematic when local agencies that rely on the GBI for investigative services ask themselves, “Why would we call them?” The more experienced and reasonable agents will, for months and years to come, have to work to restore that integrity.

GBI Director Vic Reynolds 

Reynolds was in town the day the decision to charge Thompson was made and supposedly assisted in reaching that consensus to make an arrest. It would be much more difficult to comprehend how the head of an upper level state agency could advise such an action, until you consider his previous tenure as a district attorney and the inherently political nature of the GBI. 

The Georgia Department of Public Safety/Georgia State Patrol

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” — Archbishop Desmond Tutu

DPS left Thompson out in the proverbial cold when they invoked an emergency rule and fired Thompson because he was charged with a felony. The discussion of Thompson’s termination from day one has centered around how the agency “had to” terminate because of the felony arrest. But 478-1-.26(11) of the State Personnel Board Rules under the Georgia Department of Administrative Services, which governs state agency personnel policies because it holds the insurance policies, did not require it. In fact, the rule merely states that an appointing authority “may take immediate adverse action against an employee if it is likely that the employee has committed a felony or other crime involving moral turpitude…”

Whether or not Thompson had committed a felony on August 14, 2020 was still to be determined – at least by constitutional standards. 

The same governing rules permit suspension without pay pending criminal court action or the industry standard for public employees: administrative leave with pay. Regardless, there were at least three options and DPS opted for the most extreme.

Whether it was a command staff decision or a recommendation from the State Personnel Board, it was not only premature, but also wrong. 

Attorney Francys Johnson

Francys Johnson, a Screven County native, activist, and attorney represents the Lewis family in the related civil case. Johnson is also a defense attorney and has spent much of his advocacy time on this case working to taint the waters based on his own baseless suppositions. 

Beyond that, he has partaken in one of the most inconsistent two-part spectacles most of us have ever seen. While the facts are immensely different, Thompson and Marcus Wilson in Bulloch County were charged with the same felony offenses: felony murder and aggravated assault. Yet, Johnson believed that Wilson, who is black, should receive bond while Thompson should not. He has argued Wilson’s case is one of self-defense, but stated publicly that Thompson’s was “assassination.” While advocating that all of his clients be subject to due process protections and remain innocent unless proven guilty, Johnson has repeatedly asserted that Thompson is guilty. While the police and DA’s office are on a witch hunt in Bulloch County, they were (until Monday) to be praised in the Trooper case. 

As he made claims in a press conference that Lewis was murdered by a cop, Johnson not only misled the Lewis family, but the general public and potential jurors. 

He has also perpetuated a narrative that the only reason this happened at all is because Julian Lewis was black. If the events transpired as quickly as Johnson claims they did in the $12 million civil suit filed against the state on behalf of the Lewis family, when was Thompson able to determine the race of the driver? 


The greatest problem with how this case has been handled, though, is the way it has been devoid of any honor for either of the families truly impacted. Because of the lacking incorruptibility, the process has lacked any semblance of accuracy and expediency for the Thompson family. Similarly, the Lewis family was promised the moon when the evidence was only enough to deliver a telescope. And that evidence wouldn’t change because of race. 

Worse, there are actually verifiably and irrefutably  unjustified uses of force by law enforcement officers and those officers need to be held accountable through whatever means are available. Ironically, the same district attorney’s office has declined to move forward on previous cases with undeniable misdoings in the past. The allocation of time and resources to see this case through for reasons still unbeknownst to anyone paying attention is a slap in the face to anyone with real and egregious rights violations. 

But each of these agitators will do nothing to remedy their wrongs because they’re too prideful to admit the entire thing was a mistake. And that is the bridge between an agitator and villain: villains do it on purpose.


CASE COVERAGE:

8/8/20 — GBI Investigating Officer-Involved Shooting In Screven County
8/14/20 — GBI Arrests Trooper Following Shooting In Screven County
8/24/20 — Fmr. Trooper Appears In Court For Bond Hearing On Felony Murder, Agg Assault Charges
9/4/20 — Judge Denies Bond for Trooper in Screven Officer-Involved Shooting Case
9/28/20 — Fmr. Trooper Appears in Court for Preliminary Hearing, Bond Reconsideration
11/23/20 — Attorneys for Fmr Trooper Make Third Request for Bond in Screven Co. OIS Case
11/30/20 — Judge Orders Bond in Thompson Case
12/01/20 — Attorneys for Thompson, Lewis Family Comment Publicly After Bond Order
1/14/21 — Attorneys for Fmr. Trooper Thwack DA’s Rationale for Abruptly Canceling Grand Jury Presentment
2/12/21 — The Tale of 2 Shootings: Striking Similarities, Wildly Different Results
2/28/21 — Records Don’t Exonerate DA’s Office Against Claims of ‘Grand Jury Shopping’
3/19/21 — Judge Denies States Request for Financial Docs of Fmr Trooper, Family of Julian Lewis
3/23/21 — Prosecutors Still Not Ready to Present Trooper Case to Grand Jury
5/18/21 —After Another Concluded Investigation, Screven Co. Trooper Case Remains Outlier for the Nation
6/15/21 — 911 Records Show That Trooper’s Vehicle Equipment Wasn’t Working Properly During Pursuit Through Rural Screven County
6/28/21 — Screven Co. Grand Jury Returns ‘No Bill of Indictment’ In Trooper OIS Case

Jessica Szilagyi
Written By

Jessica Szilagyi is Publisher of The Georgia Virtue. She focuses primarily on state and local politics as well as issues in law enforcement. 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, a commentator on the 'Let Me Tell You Why You're Wrong Podcast,' and she has two blogs of her own: The Perspicacious Conservative and "Hair Blowers to Lawn Mowers." Sign up for her weekly newsletter: http://eepurl.com/gzYAZT

7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Jerry goldin

    June 29, 2021 at 6:49 pm

    As a retired Trooper, just from reading the evidence, it appears the GSP brass said the best way to get brownie points for them was to fire the road Trooper. It’s sad.

  2. Avatar

    Bryan Price

    June 30, 2021 at 7:08 am

    This article is so well articulated, I love the way this journalist wrote it! Thank you for the diligence it takes to put this together and report the facts that the people deserve to know.

    • Avatar

      Glenn Helmly

      July 1, 2021 at 11:27 pm

      Absolutely, she does the best job around! Great read….

  3. Avatar

    James Brummett

    July 1, 2021 at 10:25 am

    Yes it is very clear that the DPS brass was playing the new era of woke politics which means lets throw the Trooper under the bus so we look good to the leftist so called news media but all the while forgetting that the rural citizens of Georgia and the Nation are not stupid

  4. Avatar

    AL KEMP

    July 8, 2021 at 4:58 pm

    ALL OF THESE HEARTACHES COULD HAVE BEEN AVOIDED, ALL HE HAD TO DO WAS STOP WHEN THE BLUE LIGHTS CAME ON. WHY DO THEY FEEL LIKE THEY HAVE TO RUN..

  5. Avatar

    Mark A Lillquist

    July 18, 2021 at 10:52 am

    What was the trooper’s defense? Why did he “bust a cap”

    Also, I agree that Jessica does a great job! That last name is beguiling, I wonder where it comes from.

  6. Pingback: June 2021 Sunlight Fund Transparency Report - The Georgia Virtue

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