One of Georgia's most powerful lawmakers has repeatedly used his office to delay court proceedings — some of them for years — for criminal defendants he represents as an attorney, according to an investigation by two Atlanta news organizations.
House Speaker David Ralston asked judges to reschedule court cases at least 57 times in the past two years, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB-TV reported. Clients of Ralston's private law practice who benefited from the delays included men charged with child molestation, assault and drunken driving.
"That's why I gave him $20,000 bucks," Ralston client David Shell told the newspaper. "He's worth every penny of it."
Shell hired Ralston after being charged with aggravated assault. A girlfriend accused him of head-butting her and biting her finger. Court records show Shell had previously been charged with beating two other women. A grand jury indicted him in the latest case more than four years ago, but Shell remains free after Ralston got proceedings delayed seven times.
Georgia law requires judges to reschedule hearings and trials that conflict with the legislative duties of attorneys who also serve in the state House or Senate. Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge in the north Georgia mountains, was first elected to the legislature 26 years ago. In 2010 he became House speaker, a position that gives Ralston tremendous power over proposed changes to state law as well as how Georgia spends taxpayer money.
Court records show Ralston often writes letters that put off cases in bulk.
"Please be advised that I am hereby requesting a continuance of these three cases from the criminal calendar call," reads one of Ralston's letters. "I hereby certify to the Court that my legislative duties and obligations will require that I be elsewhere on that date."
In the two-year period examined by the news organizations, Ralston claimed to be unavailable for 93 days — 76 of which fell outside of legislative sessions. When a judge asked years ago why Ralston he couldn't be in court, he cited scheduling conflicts including a luncheon, a conference, a Republican Party meeting and a speech.
"Legislative leave is a long-established provision of Georgia law which recognizes the unique needs of a citizen-legislature and protects the independence of the legislative branch of state government," Ralston said in a statement. "Like other members of the General Assembly, I utilize this provision outside of the legislative session, when necessary, to attend to my legislative duties as both a state representative and Speaker of the House."
Court records show Ralston's frequent use of the legal provision has put some cases on hold for years.
One client's DUI case has been pending for more than a decade after Ralston delayed it at least 17 times, the newspaper said. Another Ralston client charged with enticing a child for indecent purposes has been awaiting trial since 2009. Ralston filed for 14 delays in that case.
Stalling can be an effective defense tactic. Long delays can frustrate crime victims and cause them to give up, evidence may get lost, witnesses can back out of testifying, and police investigators often retire or move to other jobs, said David LaBahn, president and CEO of the Washington-based Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.
"On the prosecution side, it's 'justice delayed is justice denied,'" LaBahn said. "As it relates to the criminal defense community, they'll say that the criminal case is much like fine wine. It improves over time."
The newspaper said Superior Court Judge Brenda Weaver, chief judge for the three-county Appalachian Judicial Circuit, declined to be interviewed about Ralston's delays but said in a text message: "any cases that were continued for legislative leave on my calendars were continued based on a proper request that met all of the requirements of the statute."
Appalachian Circuit District Attorney B. Alison Sosebee said she believes if there were unnecessary delays "my office or the judges would address that through the proper legal channels."
Meanwhile, Shell's ex-fiancé, Jydon Carpenter, is still awaiting a trial more than five years after she says he assaulted her at a camper park. She said after Shell's arrest she sought treatment for post-traumatic stress, and now she sometimes struggles to remember exactly what happened that night, which she knows could be a problem on the witness stand.
"I'm never going to forget that night, but I might forget what led up to it, and other details," Carpenter said. "It does piss me off that money can make things go away, and Ralston is charging people exorbitant amounts of money to make things go away."