Burrell Ellis, Mr. Eleven-to-One

Burrell Ellis“Name one thing you think he did!” a woman said to me Tuesday afternoon on the seventh floor of DeKalb’s county courthouse, a few minutes after Judge Courtney Johnson declared a mistrial. She worked in contracting, and had been at the trial every day, she told me. Perhaps she was investing in her future.

Well, Burrell Ellis, suspended CEO of DeKalb County, demanded money of contractors to retire his campaign debts, and closed off their contracts if they wouldn’t return his calls. “You don’t know how it works,” she replied. “Where are you from? You’re not from Georgia, are you?”

This is the nightmare result.

One would assume that a guilty verdict on any charge would have precipitated an immediate appeal. But I suspect the appellate judges would have been loathe to overturn a jury verdict, given the evidence and the consequences. Political purgatory would be short-lived. Ellis would be permanently stripped of his position and a special election would be called for both the CEO job and Lee May’s seat on the commission. The rest of the world would see some sense of order restored.

If Ellis had been found not guilty of the accusations of extortion and perjury and bribery and perjury, the results would have been less catastrophic than the mistrial declared today.

A not guilty verdict would have been shocking, but final. Ellis would have returned to work leading DeKalb’s government, albeit under an Alaska-sized cloud. Lee May would have returned to his post on the county commission, in a state of fundamental tension with the man he replaced — and would in all likelihood seek to replace again. Ellis, a man who plainly conflates accountability with retribution given his demands to “dry up” contractors who failed to return his calls, might be expected to comb through county government to punish the disloyal during his solo walk through the wilderness … starting with the district attorney who tried him, Robert James, and his political ally May.

It would be ugly. It’s less ugly than what comes now.  

“Susan Worthy, the second juror elected foreperson because of personality disputes with her predecessor, said she thought Ellis should have been convicted. But not all agreed and that split among her fellow jurors was not going to change, Worthy said in an interview.

The closest the jury came to a unanimous vote was on count nine, an extortion charge. The final vote on that count was 11-1 for guilty, she said.”

The AJC story notes that James could not comment, because he’s bound by a gag order. But he almost certainly will retry Ellis.

Which means while former commissioner Elaine Boyer trundles off to prison, and while we wait for the Department of Justice to indict Stan Watson for using county money for his website and his phone or whatever the heck was going on in South Carolina, or Sharon Barnes-Sutton for her P-card misuses or the payments to her partner for consulting work, or the ethics complaint alleging improper office spending by Kathie Gannon  … we’re stuck with six more month of Ellis trial.

Juries in DeKalb are … peculiar. You can see it in the mistrial of Occupy Our Homes Atlanta activists who blockaded a foreclosure eviction in Avondale Estates last year, and the acquittal of sovereign citizens who essentially stole homes under foreclosure in Lithonia. DeKalb County juries loathe authority.

Nonetheless, there’s an easy racial narrative being superimposed on this case, that a DeKalb jury composed primarily of African Americans simply won’t convict on a case of political corruption.

Michelle Miller, an AJC editor, scratched at it a couple of weeks ago.

“Perhaps I’m naive, but I’m beginning to realize that a part of my heart remains colored by my father’s worldview: that black men — the good ones, the strong ones, the strivers and the achievers — have to stick together. That no one can fully appreciate the challenges they face other than someone who is, in so many ways, just like them.”

Still, Miller notes that her sentiments aren’t universal, and encourages folks to “grow up.” Highly-accomplished black leaders are a sign of progress, she wrote, and with that progress comes a public responsibility to hold them to the same standards of anyone else.

It’s unfair to lay this at the feet of black racism. Eleven pissed off jurors fled that courtroom Tuesday. At least nine are black. We don’t know the race of the holdout, or if race is why she was a holdout. We will know, eventually. They’re going to talk. The truth will emerge.

But the damage has been done.

A technocrat will govern by efficiency. A populist will govern by the rallying the public. A strongman will govern by force of will. A statesman will govern by a code of honor.

What do you call governance by the juror of most resistance?


    • George Chidi says:

      Sure. But so what?

      If it’s clear that you’ll face no punishment in a court when you shake down contractors for campaign cash, that will become the standard for doing business. Contractors who prefer honest dealings will flee — there’s evidence of it happening already — leaving a smaller, less versatile pool for getting work done.

      Will it be proper to solicit kickbacks if you want to get a county job now? Should we expect the folks who work in planning and permits to expect donations to their pet charities in order to facilitate a permit approval? It’s not hard to extrapolate where this goes.

      If I had to choose between a hung jury and a not guilty decision, I would have taken the not guilty. Right now, it looks like most of DeKalb understands that what’s happening is wrong, but some small percentage of the jury pool — a small minority of a majority-black electorate — can nonetheless drive the train. It takes the burgeoning black middle class of this county and craps on them.

      • Jon Lester says:

        Fickle juries are hardly exclusive to DeKalb County, of course. Enduring a second trial won’t be any fun, but the DA has every good reason to go through with it. Maybe because of it, more middle class DeKalb voters of every shade will ultimately decide they want a leaner and more accountable government, even if it takes more than one or two cycles to get there.

      • Will Durant says:

        Not having the experience I’ve never found it my place to comment on black-on-black racial issues though I have witnessed some good people who allowed themselves to be held back because of it. Though I’ve also witnessed a guy willing to be used as a shill to get a minority-owned business contract as well. I really wish more people would pay attention to some of the results coming out of the modern genome projects.

        I’m not sure race is as much a factor as the jury you end up with that can abide spending 5 weeks out of their lives while attorneys are billing triple rates for trial time. At a critical stage in my working career I was once willing to claim to be racist to avoid a death penalty trial. A couple of years prior to that I had sat on a federal grand jury for 11 months of traveling to the Russell building once a week. That had created its own undue hardship.

  1. gcp says:

    “Juries in DeKalb are … peculiar.” Agree on that one.

    Not too long ago a Dekalb Jury convicted a high-ranking school official (non-elected) and her contractor ex-husband on corruption charges but I go back a little further to the murder of Sheriff-elect Derwin Brown. Strangely a Dekalb Jury found the two shooters (both black) not guilty but both were subsequently convicted in federal court. The trial of the mastermind of the murder, former Sheriff Sid Dorsey was moved to south Ga. at defense request and he was convicted of murder. Interestingly the prosecution was led by J Tom Morgan, one of Ellis’ attorneys.

    “It’s unfair to lay this at the feet of black racism.” Partially agree as we don’t know the race of the “one.” But we can all agree 11 to one shows that if race was involved, it played a very small (but critical) role.

  2. Progressive Dem says:

    The DA appears to be over his head. In this trial the DA had to take the witness stand to defend the legitimacy of his evidence. The DA was cross examined by Ellis’s attorney! That must be a first, and I suspect the defense attorney’s erection lasted for more than four hours after that once in a lifetime thrill.

    In the trial of DeKalb School Superintendent Crawford Lewis, the DA accepted a plea bargain for testimony, but the Superior Court Judge rejected the agreement. How often does this happen? In the DA’s third big case, he over-reached on Andrea Sniderman.

    Meanwhile the DA has yet to file a charge against Elaine Boyer, Kelvin Walton, Sharon Barnes-Sutton, Vernon Jones or anyone in Watershed Management where the grand jury originally focused their investigation.

  3. Progressive Dem says:

    To continue on that metaphor … no doubt the DA has hard-on to retry Ellis, but the rumor around DeKalb is the U.S. Attorney’s office is about to indict Kelvin Walton on charges related to Watershed Management. They have been waiting for the Ellis trial to end. If Walton is indicted, his testimony loses more credibility. Meanwhile the public observes the federal prosecutors clean-up the county while Robert James struggles.

  4. Bobloblaw says:

    “””that a DeKalb jury composed primarily of African Americans simply won’t convict on a case of political corruption.””” ding ding ding ding…..DeKalb is on its way to becoming the sick man of GA (ok not as bad as Hancock County perhaps). No one will want to do business there, more white flight, a shrinking tax base and more crime. All in store for one of the only counties in GA to go for Nixon in 1968. My how things have changed

    “”“Perhaps I’m naive, but I’m beginning to realize that a part of my heart remains colored by my father’s worldview: that black men — the good ones, the strong ones, the strivers and the achievers — have to stick together. “””

    And this attitude is why Alcee Hastings is a member of congress. This attitude gives way to what is called “extractive” political and economic institutions. Want to kill growth and opportunity. Have extractive political institutions.

    • Dave Bearse says:

      Didn’t Balfour walk?

      And the gal that falsified a warrant, and the incompetents that through a grenade that blew the nose off a baby’s face weren’t even charged.

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