Watching the pre-trial immunity hearing for William Marcus Wilson put into perspective the real crisis of Georgia’s legal system. Wilson, who is Black and was with a white woman during the incident that led to the death of Haley Hutcheson, has been sitting in pre-trial detention for over 400 days.
Initially denied bond, Wilson’s legal counsel filed a motion to reconsider bond in December 2020. And yet, the judge still has taken no action on that motion nearly a year later.
Let that sink in for a moment. In a system that claims people are innocent until proven guilty, a young man sits in jail without so much as a clear ruling on bond because the judge refuses to issue a decision.
Maintaining his innocence, Wilson insists that he was in fear for his life after a truck full of drunk, white teenagers tried to run his car off the road while screaming “N*gger/lover” at him and his girlfriend. The group also threw presumably empty beer bottles at Wilson’s car.
Not one received even a citation for driving under the influence. There were no repercussions for riding around with open beer bottles in the truck or drinking/purchasing alcohol while underaged – all of which they admitted to law enforcement that night.
But as the immunity hearing approached a close on the second day of testimony, I became horrified as basic Constitutional protections seemed to disappear right before our eyes. Protections like the right to legal counsel, due process, and judicial impartiality appeared in question. Wilson’s defense counsel discovered that Judge Michael Muldrew and District Attorney Daphne Totten had improper communication during the trial.
Instead of using the proper procedure to acknowledge the mishap, they attempted to cover it up without notifying the defense, giving the appearance of judicial impropriety. The district attorney submitted evidence to the judge never shared with Wilson’s defense. And when it was brought to the court’s attention by the defense team, Muldrew held Wilson’s lead defense counsel, Attorney Francys Johnson, in contempt of court.
Johnson, a noted civil rights advocate and attorney in the state, was detained for over six hours. His co-counsel was also threatened with contempt for refusing to allow the bailiffs to manhandle Johnson. If a judge can do this to an officer of the court, imagine what happens to defendants.
This is the current state of Georgia and this country’s legal system. Judges and prosecutors act without professional integrity because they do not expect serious accountability. This is also the result of a failed legal system that seeks to punish people who either are unable to pay bond or are simply the victims of a legal crisis.
Though we call on specific actors, such as Judge Michael Muldrew, to be held accountable when they infringe on the rights of others through a perverted sense of power and privilege, there are so many others that go unnamed and unchecked.
There are deteriorating elements of a legal system, particularly in Georgia’s rural and coastal South, that are threatening the very sustainability of any pursuit of justice within our entire state. Daphne Totten also illustrates this crisis. As district attorney, she failed in securing an indictment in the murder of Julian Lewis. The Georgia State Patrol and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation both agreed that Lewis’ death was murder. Totten still refuses to release the video and audio of Lewis’ murder by Trooper Jake Thompson.
Former District Attorney Jackie Johnson is another example. While indicted for a minor offense related to her failure to prosecute the murderers of Ahmaud Arbery, she still has not been held responsible for dozens of cases in which she was grossly negligent in the execution of her duties as a prosecutor.
Georgia’s legal crisis extends even to its jails and prisons, as incarcerated people are continuously subjected to inhumane and often deadly conditions. State legislative hearings and the Department of Justice led statewide civil rights investigations into Georgia’s prisons – many of which are in South and rural Georgia communities.
These are just a few of the tens of thousands of cases in which justice is never served. In every aspect of this crisis, lives and communities are being destroyed. The failures of legal institutions persist through a lack of accountability, transparency and clear impartiality. It’s ultimately up to us to abolish these systems and reimagine a new way.
Young people like Wilson get dragged through the system with procedural delays and the broad realm of judicial and prosecutorial discretion standing in the way of just action. Reasonable fear of blackness is accepted, but Black people’s genuine fear of severe bodily injury or death is often disregarded.
The time is now for bold ideas and a relentless pursuit of justice that respects the rights of all people and ensures accountability for any and every actor that inflicts violent harm through the denial of human and constitutional rights. The time is now to bring Marc Wilson back home. Our charge is clear; this is our moment.
Rev. James Woodall is a current Public Policy Associate of the Southern Center for Human Rights and former State President of the Georgia NAACP.