‘I’ve been there before’: Why star defense attorney Stacey Jackson chose to be Columbus’ new DA

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As Stacey Jackson maneuvered to leave his lucrative private law practice to pursue appointment as Columbus’ new district attorney, an old college buddy asked him why.

Why would he leave a job that had made him one of the six-county Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit’s most prominent criminal defense attorneys? Why would he give up that income, and that star-attorney status, to go work for the government?

Jackson didn’t have to stop and think about that, because he already had: The short answer was “Why not?” The long one was that this is his home, he said.

“The unique thing about this position is, see, I’m from here. I grew up here,” the Harris County native said in an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer. “I chose to make this my home and to practice here. I care about the community.”

After the recent discord within the DA’s office resulting from the reign of Mark Jones, who took office in 2021, fired experienced prosecutors and caused repeated controversy before going to prison for misconduct, Jackson decided the office needed him.

“I saw that there was a need for someone to come in an provide stability and credibility to the DA’s office, and I’m just sitting around, and I said, ‘Well, why not me? I’ve been there before.’”

Jackson served as an assistant district attorney from 2000-2008, before starting his private practice.

He returned to where he began Friday as he was sworn in as the chief prosecutor for the judicial circuit that besides Muscogee includes the counties of Harris, Chattahoochee, Taylor, Talbot and Marion. His sons Andrew, 22, and Aiden, 15, held the Bible for him as Chief Judge Gil McBride administered the oath of office.

Jackson announced that he will not be the only one returning to the district attorney’s office here: He has appointed Don Kelly, a senior prosecutor whom Jones fired, to be his chief assistant DA. Kelly worked 17 years as a prosecutor in the circuit before Jones terminated him, and over the past two years has served in the Houston and Coweta circuits.

Kelly said he will resume working here on June 13.

Appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp, Jackson takes over from Sheneka Terry, who became acting district attorney in October 2021 when Kemp suspended Jones for alleged misconduct. Jones went to trial in November, but pleaded guilty before the jury reached a verdict. He’s serving a year in prison.

As Jackson becomes DA, Terry moves to the circuit public defender’s office, where she will be assigned to Columbus Recorder’s Court, handling new criminal cases. That will reduce the number of conflicts she’s likely to encounter as a former prosecutor.

Jackson’s move from defense attorney to prosecutor inevitably will result in other conflicts, as he will not be able to act on cases involving clients he previously represented. He estimated handling around 1,500 cases as a defense attorney for eight years, and guesses he’ll leave 75-80 cases still pending.

Cases Jackson can’t take on can be referred to the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia, commonly called PAC, which will assign outside prosecutors to them, he said.

Facing the future

As he prepared to take on this new challenge, Jackson spoke with the Ledger-Enquirer last week about the issues he faced. Here’s a rundown:

  • Staffing: Jackson said his first priority is assembling a full slate of prosecutors to tackle a backlog in pending cases caused by COVID-19 court lockdowns and Jones’ firing experienced attorneys. “Basically the plan is to get in and make sure, number one, that we get full staffed. That’s the first thing.”

  • Clearing the court backlog: “Obviously you want to concentrate on those cases where people are incarcerated and haven’t been able to make bond,” Jackson said, because those suspects can cause overcrowding at the county jail. He also plans to assess the process of transferring warrants and other paperwork to see if it needs to be streamlined, he said.

  • Reducing jail time for those awaiting trial: Prosecutors who think a suspect’s too dangerous to be released on bond need to get the case to trial, not leave the defendant waiting in jail, he said. “They need to be ready to take that case before a grand jury and get it prosecuted,” he said. “If that person’s that much of a danger, then we need to get this case moving.” The 1,069-capacity Muscogee County Jail had 1,011 inmates on Friday, with 115 charged with murder, said Sheriff Greg Countryman.

  • Attacking gun violence: “There is a plan for those convicted felons who have weapons,” Jackson said, though he would not be more specific except to say that such cases may be referred to federal authorities, because gun crimes in federal court draw more prison time.

  • Working with police: Jackson as a defense attorney has criticized investigators for arresting suspects on insufficient evidence. His new job hasn’t changed his view on standards of evidence, he said. “Even as a prosecutor, I believe that if you’re going to present a case in Recorder’s Court, you need to have enough probable cause for that case to go to Superior Court.” His office will be open as a “legal earpiece” for officers who want advice on cases, he said.

  • Pursuing the death penalty: He is not opposed to taking on a death-penalty case, he said. “It’s in the statute and there’s case law for it.” But he won’t pursue capital punishment without a “deep dive” into the evidence and consultation with the state attorney general and prosecuting attorneys council, he said: “That decision won’t be made haphazardly.”

  • Prosecuting cold murder cases. Jackson said he believes cold cases should be pursued, despite their challenges, if the evidence is sufficient. It’s the same standard that should apply to any case, he said. “It’s strictly based on the evidence. We’re going to be evidence-driven.”

  • Handling personnel: Unlike Jones, Jackson said he plans no mass firings, and respects the work prosecutors have performed under trying circumstances, over the past few years. “I’m going in open minded and wide eyed, and going to assess the DA’s office from top to bottom, and not make any prejudgments about any particular part of the staff that’s working there now.”

‘Like playing football’

Featured in a September 2020 Ledger-Enquirer profile, Jackson is the son of educators: His mother Laura taught in Harris County and his father Arnold in Harris and in Talbot County. Jackson graduated from Harris County High School in 1992, got an undergraduate degree in 1996 from Albany State University and got his law degree in 1999 at the University of Dayton.

He clerked for two years for then-Superior Court Judges Doug Pullen and Bill Smith before becoming an assistant district attorney.

Except for the daunting administrative duties he faces, overseeing a staff of nearly 70 workers, his going from defense attorney to lead prosecutor should be easy, he said.

“It’s kind of like playing football: You’re on offense one minute, then you switch over to defense, or vice-versa. The game is the same..... It’s not like something I haven’t done before.”

Asked just how much of a cut in pay he’ll take, in his new position, he started laughing.

“Let’s just say that the purse strings will be tightening,” he said.

Stacey Jackson speaks to a packed courtroom Friday afternoon after he was sworn in as the new district attorney for the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit. 05/20/2022
Stacey Jackson speaks to a packed courtroom Friday afternoon after he was sworn in as the new district attorney for the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit. 05/20/2022
Superior Court Judge Gil McBride, facing camera, swears in Stacey Jackson as the new district attorney for the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit on Friday afternoon in Columbus, Georgia. 05/20/2022
Superior Court Judge Gil McBride, facing camera, swears in Stacey Jackson as the new district attorney for the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit on Friday afternoon in Columbus, Georgia. 05/20/2022
Stacey Jackson speaks to a packed courtroom Friday afternoon after he was sworn in as the new district attorney for the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit. 05/20/2022
Stacey Jackson speaks to a packed courtroom Friday afternoon after he was sworn in as the new district attorney for the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit. 05/20/2022