Kemp wants death penalty in anti-gang law amid public defender cuts

Gov. Brian Kemp unveils his anti-gang bills for this session as Deborah Riley, whose son is the namesake of one of the measures, stands next to him Thursday. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

A murder suspect accused of violating Georgia’s anti-gang laws could face the death penalty under a yet-to-be-filed bill backed by Gov. Brian Kemp.

That’s one of the proposed changes included in the latest round of the Republican governor’s push to make good on the crackdown he promised on the campaign trail back in 2018 in response to what he’s called a “gang crisis.”

But the measures – he said Thursday that two bills would be filed – also come as Kemp has proposed deep cuts to the Georgia Public Defender Council. State lawmakers have heard troubling reports from council staff on how the cuts will affect their ability to provide essential representation to defendants across the state.

The governor’s budget proposal would cut about $3.5 million from the council’s funding next year. Meanwhile, his budget adds $3.2 million to recruit and retain assistant district attorneys and to hire more prosecutors for some juvenile courts.

Kemp also added $2 million to this year’s and next year’s budgets to beef up the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s one-year-old anti-gang task force and fund a statewide gang database.

“We’re funding our priorities,” Kemp said. “There’s been a lot of misinformation out there about the public defenders. So, we’ll look forward to continuing to make sure the legislators are hearing both sides of that story as we get into the budget process.”

A summary of the forthcoming legislation circulated by the governor’s office said one bill – called the Nicholas Sheffey Act, after an 11-year-old who was gunned down in 2010 while sleeping in his Chamblee bed – would also empower district attorneys to prosecute a suspected gang member for offenses committed elsewhere if related to a local case.

In Sheffey’s case, the defendant received a long prison sentence – two life sentences plus 675 years, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s coverage at the time – but was not eligible for the death penalty, said his mother, Deborah Riley, who stood next to Kemp at a press conference held Thursday afternoon.

Riley said afterwards that she thinks the current law failed her son because the death penalty couldn’t be pursued in the case.

“For a coward to come by, knowing that everyone’s in the bed asleep, and to open fire – he really didn’t care who he shot,” she said (the boy’s 16-year-old brother was the target). “He’s where he needs to be, but if I had had my way, it would have been the death penalty.”

The bill would also clarify that offenders can be charged multiple times under existing law, potentially adding five to 15 years in prison for each additional count. For cases where the death penalty isn’t pursued by prosecutors, this change could ensure convicted gang members never leave prison.

A second bill would expand the powers of campus police and school security officers so they can have arrest powers 880 yards beyond their boundaries. It’s a measure partly designed to address problems at Georgia State University and Georgia Tech.

That measure would also create a legal division of the GBI that would allow the agency to provide special prosecutors, building on an anti-gang task force that was launched last year.

“Gangs can be extraordinarily difficult to track, capture and then ultimately prosecute,” Kemp said Thursday. “Their criminal enterprises can span entire regions of our state, and they often know how to evade authorities on the streets as well as in the courtroom.”

Kemp’s announcement came just days after the head of the Georgia Public Defenders Council briefed lawmakers on the worrying impact of the governor’s proposed budget cuts.

Last fiscal year, the council opened about 140,000 new cases; halfway through the current budget year, the council has already exceeded the number of new cases opened at this point last year, said Jimmonique Rodgers, the council’s interim director.

“We anticipate that this upward trend [in caseload] will continue. As you heard, the prosecution of human trafficking in this state is being emphasized as well as gang prosecution,” Rodgers told lawmakers this week, referring to two of Kemp’s priorities.

“We carry out this mission as a very lean agency,” she said. “Historically, we’ve been lean since the recession, because we had a number of positions that were not backfilled and were not funded after the recession.”

Georgia Recorder freelancer Maggie Lee contributed to this report.