“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?