Showdown in justice: The race for district attorney

Showdown in justice: The race for district attorney

Columbus voters will go to the polls in November to choose a new district attorney to serve not only Muscogee and Chattahoochee counties but also Harris, Talbot, Marion and Taylor counties.

Voters will choose between two candidates: Don Kelly, a Republican, career prosecutor and current employee of the DA’s office, and Anthony Johnson, a Democrat and lifelong defense attorney specializing in cases where juveniles are tried as adults. 

Both native Columbians, Kelly and Johnson say they want to improve the office and make Columbus a better place to live and work. 

Kelly worked as assistant and senior assistant district attornies from 2003 until 2020, when he was fired by incoming district attorney Mark Jones. Jones was later removed from office after pleading guilty to four counts of public corruption. 

“I was one of the senior attorneys in the office, and I was sent a letter saying that my services were no longer needed under Mark Jones,” Kelly said, adding that he returned to the office under current DA Stacy Jackson. Jackson is not seeking reelection due to health issues.

Kelly, a Hardaway High School graduate, said he wants to focus on clearing the backlog of cases by finding ways to address them quickly and efficiently, along with dealing with homicides.

“The homicide rate has gone up 250 percent in eight years,” Kelly said. “Most of my career, it was somewhere between 18 and 25 homicides a year. The last three years, we’ve had 70, 44 and 57 homicides. We need to address that because it is a real problem.”

His opponent, Johnson, a Caver High School graduate, said he wants to focus on getting to know people in the community and increasing pre-trial diversion programs.

“Every other circuit our size has a pre-trial diversion program,” Johnson said. “There is no good reason why we haven’t started these programs. It’s not reinventing the wheel.”

Johnson said the current models could be tweaked to address the needs of each county in the district.

The district attorney and the next U.S. President will be selected on Nov. 5, 2024.

“This is the most important race that will be on the ticket,” Kelly said. “It affects public safety greatly. It is important to have an experienced person in the role to be able to deal with all the things that come up in the six counties.”

Still, Johnson believes the role needs go to someone who has new ideas, and a leader who views the office from a different perspective. 

“I really think I am the best candidate,” said Johnson, who has a background in juvenile justice. “I have a lot of respect for Stacy (Jackson), but unfortunately, he is not seeking reelection.”

Johnson said winning the election would be the realization of a dream, because when he first started thinking about becoming a lawyer, he wanted to be a prosecutor. Then he found himself representing children.

“I view them as two sides of the same coin,” he said of the defense and prosecution. “As a defense attorney, I was responsible for protecting my client’s rights, and as a prosecutor, I would be responsible for protecting the rights of the community. As far as impact, I can do more as a prosecutor to effect positive change in the community.”

Johnson said he would conduct town hall meetings in all six counties in the district if elected, and assign assistant district attorneys to each area. 

“I think getting into the community will make a big difference,” said Johnson, who has been practicing law for 12 years. “You have to be willing to go to the people at the point of impact. You have to be willing to go to their homes, the community centers, organization meetings — you have to be willing to get involved.”

On the other hand, Kelly said his first priority would be to deal with the backlog of cases and ensure that the office expeditiously resolves it.

“The office needs someone experienced who understands how to operate the office, clear out the backlog and make sure that we get back on track to do justice across the board,” Kelly said. “Part of that is addressing these cases quickly.”

Still, if Johnson is elected, he said he won’t be sending out any pink slips. 

I do think I might have to make some personnel changes, but I would give everyone the opportunity to buy into my new philosophy and changes I want to make,” he said. “But no mass firings.”

By Kirsten J. Barnes

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