Thursday, August 11

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This is Undercurrent, a newsletter where we explore the deeper issues surrounding public safety in Coastal Georgia. 

Latoya James, Facebook

Coastal Georgia’s Breonna Taylor case

Many people have heard the name Breonna Taylor, a Black emergency room technician killed in her home by Louisville, Ky. police during a botched raid from a no-knock warrant in March 2020. 

Her death inspired nationwide racial justice protests. Finally, as of last week, federal prosecutors charged four officers involved in the raid.

But have you heard the name Latoya James?

LaToya was killed in May 2021 when Camden County Sheriff’s deputies executed a drug-related search warrant at 4:51 a.m. She was staying at the Woodbine home of her cousin, Varshan Brown, whom the warrant was intended for. Deputies knocked and announced themselves, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, before entering the home and “an exchange of gunfire” erupted between Brown and deputies. In the chaos, deputies killed James and injured her cousin, Brown.

Although the officers involved in Breonna Taylor’s death are soon going to court, in Coastal Georgia, justice has taken a different turn. 

Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Keith Higgins – who was elected over indicted DA Jackie Johnson — announced in April he would not be seeking charges against the officers involved in the raid that killed James. 

Instead, two days later, Higgins announced that a Camden County grand jury indicted James’ cousin, Varshan Brown, for her murder. 

Even though deputies fired the shot that killed Latoya, her cousin will be standing trial for her death. The DA alleges that “while in the commission of an Aggravated Assault upon a Public Safety Officer, Brown caused the death of Latoya James.” 

In June, Brown pleaded not guilty to the multiple charges, including felony murder, and the case is ongoing. 

The Current has learned that body camera footage released by the GBI showed that deputies may have treated their search warrant more like the controversial no-knock warrant involved in Breonna Taylor’s death. In Woodbine, the officers allegedly only waited a few seconds after announcing their presence before using a battering ram on the front door. 

An analysis of the footage from the Camden County NAACP, which contends deputies didn’t give a reasonable amount of time to answer the door and resolve the matter peacefully, maps out the short time period between the police announcing themselves and the aggressive entry – about three seconds.

Worth noting: None of the other deputies in the Woodbine raid had their body cameras turned on, according to the NAACP. Only one deputy did … and he was the one with a riot shield, obstructing most of the camera’s view.

In Kentucky, state authorities prosecuted one officer in Breonna Taylor’s death (he was acquitted). Last week, the Justice Department charged four current and former Louisville officers with violating civil rights law. They alleged the officers falsified the warrant leading to the raid and alleged one officer fired blindly into Taylor’s apartment.

(Keep reading The Current as we continue to follow the story of Latoya James.)

U.S. Army Fort Stewart, near Hinesville

Data: Fort Stewart part of military justice trend

A recent investigation found that U.S. Army soldiers accused of sexual assault are far less likely to be held in pretrial confinement than soldiers accused of drug use and distribution. 

The military justice system is completely separate from our civilian justice system, and commanders – with no requirements for legal training – decide whether or not soldiers accused of crimes should be detained prior to their day in court. 

The story from ProPublica included data regarding Fort Stewart, in Coastal Georgia.

Soldiers on Fort Stewart accused of sexual assault are only confined before trial in a little over 5% of cases while in all other cases (excluding murder), soldiers are detained more than 15% of the time. 

The disparity can have dire consequences, like in the case of an El Paso soldier who continued to allegedly sexually assault women, according to ProPublica, even after being charged by the military. It was only until his fifth accusation of sexual assault that he was confined before trial. 

More gun prosecution in Savannah?

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson is pushing for the city council to approve funding for a special federal prosecutor focused on gun-related crimes.

The memorandum, which is on the agenda for the council meeting Thursday afternoon, outlines how the city would fund the position for two years, and the prosecutor would join the existing team at the U.S. Attorney’s Office of prosecutors for the Southern District of Georgia.

Charges for aggravated assault with a gun are up 20% since 2020 and 12% since 2021, according to Savannah Police year-to-date statistics. Homicides have remained fairly consistent in the last three years.

Whether or not more prosecution is the answer is up for vociferous debate. Some experts contend that the increase in gun crime nationwide had little to do with less prosecution and more to do with the massive disruption of COVID to social services, an economic downturn, and the spike in gun ownership across the country.

The impact to community services is one of several factors the Giffords Law Center, a gun violence research group, found in a report:

“In communities plagued by chronic gun violence, spending more time at home likely meant that people with unresolved disputes spent even more time in close proximity to people with whom they had conflict, who were also more likely to be stuck at home. These changes to routine activities, combined with both historic and COVID-19-related trauma, may have created more opportunities for violence to occur: people had new motivations to offend, they had easy targets, and they were cut off from capable guardians at their schools, community centers, and work.”

The group suggests a robust slate of reforms to drive down gun violence, including investing in community violence intervention programs –something Savannah started doing earlier this year.

Thanks for reading.

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Where does Fort Stewart rank in pretrial confinement investigation?

ProPublica investigation finds Army soldiers, including those from Coastal GA’s Fort Stewart, accused of sexual assault were less likely to be confined before trial than those accused of drug use and distribution.

Continue reading…

McMichaels get federal life sentences for hate crime in Arbery killing

The federal sentences for the McMichaels and Bryan marked the formal end to the Ahmaud Arbery family’s quest for justice, a difficult journey that revealed troubling problems in Glynn County’s law enforcement system.

Continue reading…

Warden documented concerns about guard’s use of force before joining Savannah police

Coastal State Prison warden wrote his concerns about officer Ernest Ferguson’s use of force violations in a letter before Ferguson was hired by the Savannah Police Department. The new records contradict the police which said there were no “documented issues” prior to hiring.

Continue reading…

Support non-partisan, solutions-based investigative journalism without bias, fear or favor on issues affecting Savannah and Coastal Georgia.

Jake Shore covers public safety and the courts system in Savannah and Coastal Georgia. He is also a Report for America corps member. Prior to joining The Current, Jake worked as a senior writer for the...