A judge on Friday granted a request from the district attorney in Atlanta to recuse her office from prosecuting the police officer who fatally shot Rayshard Brooks and instructed the state attorney general to appoint another prosecutor.
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who took office in January, had argued that actions by her predecessor, Paul Howard, made it inappropriate for her office to handle the prosecution of Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe. She had asked a judge to determine who should handle the case after state Attorney General Chris Carr twice rejected her requests to recuse herself.
Howard announced charges against Rolfe and another officer involved in the June 2020 confrontation with Brooks less than a week after the shooting. At the time, Howard was fighting to keep his job against a Democratic primary challenge from Willis.
Howard’s conduct, “including using video evidence in campaign television advertisements,” may have violated Georgia Bar rules, Willis argued in a letter to Carr. She also noted that Carr had asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to investigate whether Howard improperly issued grand jury subpoenas in the Rolfe case. Howard has denied wrongdoing.
In rejecting Willis’ requests to appoint a different prosecutor, Carr argued that the issues were specific to Howard and said the case should stay with the Fulton County district attorney’s office.
Separately, Rolfe’s defense attorney Noah Pines had filed a motion in July to disqualify the Fulton County district attorney’s office.
Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Christopher Brasher found that it is “all but inevitable” that people in Willis’ office, and likely the district attorney herself, will be called as witnesses by Rolfe’s defense during a trial and during pretrial hearings.
“The circumstances surrounding the calling of the above-referenced witnesses, and the matters about which they will be called to testify … demonstrate that there exists a conflict of interest on the part of the Office of the District Attorney for the Atlanta Judicial Circuit,” Brasher wrote.
The judge ordered the attorney general to appoint a substitute prosecutor.
Carr’s office issued a statement saying it was reviewing the order and would respect the court’s decision.
In an emailed statement, Willis said, “I appreciate Judge Brasher’s careful consideration of the difficult issues presented by this matter, and I expect that this will allow the case to move forward in a manner consistent with achieving a just result that all parties will have confidence in.”
L. Chris Stewart and Justin Miller, attorneys for Brooks’ family, said they hope Carr will move quickly to appoint another prosecutor so the case can be tried “in a vigorous and expeditious manner.”
“The family of Rayshard Brooks has been through so much during this process,” they said in an emailed statement. “The numerous stops and starts have been gut-wrenching and have made it even more difficult for this grieving family to find peace.”
Police responded on June 12, 2020, to complaints that Brooks had fallen asleep in his car in the drive-thru lane of a Wendy’s restaurant. Police body camera video shows the 27-year-old Black man struggling with two white officers after they told him he’d had too much to drink to be driving and tried to arrest him. Brooks grabbed a Taser from one of the officers and fled, firing it at Rolfe as he ran. An autopsy found that Brooks was shot twice in the back.
Rolfe has been charged with murder and other crimes. The other officer, Devin Brosnan, was charged with aggravated assault and violating his oath. Lawyers for both officers have said their clients acted appropriately, and they are free on bond.
Rolfe was fired after the shooting but the Atlanta Civil Service Board last month reversed that dismissal, finding that the city failed to follow its own procedures for disciplinary actions.