Western Judicial Circuit District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez said on Friday that Oconee County Sheriff James Hale was incorrect on Monday when he said that she is unwilling to prosecute cases in the county.
Gonzalez was responding to a news release circulated by the Oconee County Republican Party after its meeting on Monday that claimed that Hale had said “he has a stack of cases that District Attorney Deborah Gonzales refuses to prosecute.”
According to the news release, Hale said “Those cases range from shoplifting to more severe crimes that could carry a sentence of more than 30 years.”
Gonzalez said that “if Sheriff Hale believes there are a significant number of cases this office is declining to prosecute, he is mistaken.”
Gonzales said there is a backlog of cases as a result of the pandemic and underfunding of her office, but that her staff is “working hard to process all cases brought before us in as timely a manner as possible.”
Hale said on Friday afternoon that the new release accurately quoted him with one exception. He said he had not said anything about 30 year sentences.
The Oconee County Republican Party changed its policy on June 21 to ban all outside recording of its sessions and has not released any recording of the meeting, so it is impossible to know exactly what Hale said on Monday.
Gonzalez also said she found Hale’s comments surprising given that her office had just obtained two guilty verdicts on two Oconee murder cases.
Adam Hammond, who is vice chair for communication and outreach for the Oconee County Republican Party, sent out a single-page news release on Thursday summarizing the party meeting on Monday.
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Hammond is a former professional broadcast journalist, but the news release listed Kathy Hurley, party chair, as the contact person.
Hale had been the featured speaker at the meeting, and the second and third paragraphs of the seven-paragraph news release dealt with comments Hale had made.
All of those comments attributed to Hale were indirect, meaning that they were not in quotes and not meant to reflect his exact words.
I had arranged to have someone attend and record the meeting for me, since I am not able to attend for health reasons, but Hurley told in an email on June 21 that no independent recording of county meetings would be allowed in the future.
She said the party might make its own video recordings, but none has been released of the meeting.
The first paragraph in the news release summarizing Hale’s comments dealt with the murder of a sales clerk at the RaceTrac at Hog Mountain Road and U.S. 441 early this year.
The second paragraph summarizing Hale’s comments said that “Sheriff Hale also discussed interest in the effort for Oconee to split from the Western Judicial Circuit.
“Hale shared that he has a stack of cases that District Attorney Deborah Gonzales refuses to prosecute,” the news release said. “Those cases range from shoplifting to more severe crimes that could carry a sentence of more than 30 years.”
Hale told me in a telephone conversation at 2:36 p.m. on Friday that he had not seen the news release.
I both read it to him and directed him to the Facebook page where it appears.
“Everything that is quoted in there, I did say that, except for the part about the carrying the sentence of more than 30 years,” Hale said. “I did not say that.”
“I did say there were some felony cases that had been dismissed before they can go to the grand jury, which is in her purview to do,” Hale said
“Yes, there are some cases I’m a little bit disappointed in as far as why and how they were handled, and I did mention that,” he added.
Gonzalez also had not seen the party news release when I contacted her on Friday morning and asked for a response. I sent her the copy Hammond had given to me.
“If the comments attributed to Sheriff Hale in the Republican party press release are accurate, then he is mistaken,” she wrote to me in a subsequent email.
“There is a temporary backlog of cases as a result of the pandemic and staffing shortages in the DA's office,” she said.
“The primary cause of the staffing shortage is that Oconee County only contributes the cost of one Assistant District Attorney (ADA) to the District Attorney's office's budget.
“To be fully staffed, the DA's Oconee County office should consist of two ADAs, two victim advocates, one investigator and one administrative support staffer,” she wrote.
“The DA staff in Oconee County, short-staffed though they are, is being supplemented by the ACC staff and all are working hard to process all cases brought before us in as timely a manner as possible considering the constraints we are currently under,” Gonzalez said.
ACC refers to Athens-Clarke County.
Specifics On Case Load
Gonzalez said that her office is currently investigating five cases, and more than 50 cases “will soon be filed and more than 20 will be addressed when the next grand jury is convened.”
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The total caseload in Oconee County contains more than 500 felonies and misdemeanors, Gonzalez said.
Many of these “have been delayed because of the judicial emergency order since last year prior to my assuming office,” she wrote. Courts were closed because of the order. She took office only in January.
“Last item of note,” she wrote, “is that we recently obtained two guilty verdicts on two Oconee murder cases.
“These take more time and resources than other cases,” she said.
An Oconee County jury on June 21 convicted two persons of the 2019 murder of a 19-year-old Oconee County resident.
Both of those convicted were sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole only after 30 years.
Election Of Gonzalez
At the Town Hall Meeting last month, Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell acknowledged some discontent in heavily Republican Oconee County after Gonzalez, a Democrat, was elected last year as District Attorney.
The Republican Party did not field any candidates in the special election.
The Western Judicial Circuit, which consists entirely of Oconee and Clarke counties, is dominated by Clarke County.
Daniell said any effort to split Oconee from the Western Judicial Circuit would have to go through the legislature, as Hale is quoted as saying in the news release.