New Glynn County Courthouse, Brunswick, Ga. Photo by Michael Rivera.
Most of us agree that forgiveness is a virtue, but a district attorney forgiving a police officer on behalf of those he threatened, assaulted or shot is about as far from virtuous as it is possible to get.
It’s an old story that never improves in the retelling: the symbiotic relationship between prosecutors and police, each of whom are too often willing to compromise their responsibilities to the public in the name of protecting the other. In pursuit of professional ambition, the temptation to go along to get along can become overwhelming.
The usual result is uncorrected misconduct. Sometimes the outcome is much worse.
The community of Brunswick, Georgia, recently provided a tragic example when a suspended police officer fatally shot his ex-wife, her male friend and then himself. These deaths could have been avoided. Lt. Robert Sasser had been banned from Glynn County after a domestic violence arrest involving his ex-wife, Katie Kettles Sasser. He threatened to kill her and attempted to break into her home in May. Around that time, Kettles Sasser told a police investigator that his anger issues were a major factor in the failure of their marriage, and that she feared his potential reaction to her decision to file for divorce.
Only a few days after he was arrested, while he was out on bond, a reportedly suicidal Sasser engaged in an hours-long standoff with a SWAT team, assaulting two of the officers before he could be subdued. One of those officers, Joseph Hyer, says he received a threatening phone call from an anonymous person he believed to be Sasser or someone who supported him, which made him fear for his safety should Sasser be released.
Sasser was an unlikely candidate to be granted bond a second time, especially after so immediately and flagrantly violating it. But the district attorney, Jackie Johnson, evidently disagreed. Johnson’s office said, in a statement following Sasser’s release, “After consulting with police officers involved in the May 17 incident (and) the victim in the May 13 incident … the State and counsel for the defense agreed to a new bond with conditions which was approved and entered by the court.”
As Bill Torpy observed for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “consulting with” does not mean “listening to.” Kettles Sasser had texted the police witness coordinator just before her ex-husband was released, noting that she was “scared that he has nothing left to lose.” And Hyer says he took his concerns about Sasser to Johnson’s office, and insisted that the DA allow him to make a statement in court. The DA’s office, however, did not recognize him in the proceedings or inform the judge of Hyer’s desire to make a statement.
All of this would have been disturbing enough for a police officer with a sterling reputation, but Sasser was already known for his violent temper and, perhaps more pertinently, for his part in the death of Caroline Small in 2010. Sasser and another officer fatally shot Small after a low-speed chase, triggered by phone tip that she might have been using drugs. The officers argued that the shooting was self-defense, since they worried that Small might have attempted to run them over with her vehicle.
The facts of the case were arguably dubious; inarguably, Johnson went irresponsibly easy on the officers in the grand jury proceeding. She shared the state’s case with their attorneys two months before the grand jury met, a nearly unheard-of step in such cases. Johnson shared information about Small’s past drug use and criminal history with the jurors, despite the fact that the officers were not privy to that information at the time and it was therefore useless for evaluating whether the shooting was justified. Johnson also withheld information about the officers’ past actions – Sasser had shot a drug suspect five years prior – and allowed the officers’ attorneys to cross-examine a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent. And she allowed the grand jury to view an animation of the scene that was inconsistent with the evidence.
The result was that neither officer was censured in any way for Small’s death. Sasser was subsequently promoted.
Sasser’s credibility was so thin that U.S. authorities had prohibited him from testifying in federal cases. Heather Butler, the wife of a Glynn County police officer and a family member to several others, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Sasser’s reputation among his fellow officers was abysmal. “I can’t name a single person who liked him,” Butler said. “Hot-headed, angry, unpleasant. Stories going back 10 years say he was a loose cannon.” Letting him free a second time on merely his promise to behave was a reckless act, and two innocent people paid for it with their lives.
Jackie Johnson is still the prosecutor in Glynn County. Her official website promises that she will “serve the community by prosecuting fairly and with justice.” Her record says otherwise.