DA declines to prosecute man waiting years for his day in court

Quintravious Nelson is one of thousands stuck in Georgia’s criminal justice system, violating their Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial. Part 11 of The Sixth.
Quintravious Nelson is one of thousands stuck in Georgia’s criminal justice system, violating their Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial. Part 11 of The Sixt
Published: Jun. 14, 2023 at 12:22 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 20, 2023 at 9:24 AM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - A Georgia man has his freedom back following an Atlanta News First Investigation that revealed how he was forced under house arrest for years, but never officially charged with a crime.

In October 2020, South Fulton Police arrested Quintravious Nelson for aggravated assault involving a fight with multiple people where a gun discharged at a gas station. No one was injured. Nelson has repeatedly claimed he was nowhere near the crime scene when it happened.

After spending weeks in the Fulton County Detention Center, a judge granted him bond. Nelson was placed under house arrest and forced to wear an ankle monitor at all times, even while sleeping and bathing, for nearly three years. The only time he was allowed to leave his home was for medical appointments, court or work. The monitoring device cost $300 a month.

During that time, the Fulton County’s District Attorney’s office never presented his case to a grand jury, meaning Nelson was never officially charged with a crime.

“I’m 26 now,” said Nelson during an interview in May. “This has been on me since I was 22. I do miss out on a lot of things, graduations, celebrations, funerals. It’s like life is just still going and I’m just stuck in one spot.”

After learning about Nelson’s situation, Atlanta News First Investigates reached out to the Georgia Public Defender Council, the state agency responsible for appointing lawyers to people accused of crimes who cannot afford one. A short time later, the district attorney’s office filed court records indicating it was declining to prosecute the case, citing “prosecutorial discretion” as the only reason.

“The facts of this case have been reviewed and, although it appears that probable cause existed for the defendant’s arrest, the decision of the District Attorney at this time is not prosecute,” wrote Kenneth Hutcherson on May 30, 2023, an executive district attorney.

Seven days later, Nelson learned about the district attorney’s decision. He wasn’t notified by the district attorney’s office; an attorney with a civil rights attorney tipped him off after reviewing the case at the county clerk’s office. “I was in tears,” said Nelson’s mother, Quandria. “I was so grateful.”

Nelson is one of thousands of people stuck in Georgia’s criminal justice system, at no fault of their own, unable to move their cases forward for years, violating their Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial.

The majority of them are people of color, poor, cannot afford an attorney, and suffer enormous consequences without prosecutors first proving they committed a crime. In December, Fulton County’s chief superior court judge signed an order suspending defendants’ ability to request a speedy trial, citing an overwhelming backlog of cases. That order expires in early July.

Last year, Fulton County court records show at least 13,787 people arrested by police for an alleged felony, booked in jail, and waiting the district attorney’s office to present the case to a grand jury for possible indictment.

A 2022 American Civil Liberties Union report estimates 515 of them were detained in the county jail 90 days or longer.

Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Boggs acknowledged the problem to state lawmakers earlier this year, offering no clear pathway to fix it. “The backlog could indeed take years to resolve,” Boggs said during his State of the Judiciary address this past March.

Boggs blamed a long list of issues plaguing the state’s criminal justice system for the problem, including public defender and prosecutor shortages, and a backlog of cases created by the pandemic when jury trials were temporarily shutdown.

“Meanwhile and not surprisingly, the number of pending criminal cases grows larger and so does the wait for defendants charged, but not convicted of crimes who are sitting in local jails awaiting throughout this state indictment or trial,” Boggs said.

Atlanta Attorney Andrew Fleischman calls Fulton County’s backlog a crisis, and detailed his frustration in a Twitter thread this past April. Fleischman compared the county’s jail to the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, where several men have been held behind bars more than 20 years, but never convicted of their alleged involvement in the September 11, 2011, terrorist attacks.

“We have a presumption that people are innocent and that means we’re not supposed to punish them until after a jury has found beyond a reasonable doubt that they are guilty of something,” Fleischman said.

Fleischman currently represents a Dougherty County man who has been in pretrial detention for more than 10 years waiting for his trial, first uncovered by Atlanta News First Investigates in April. Fleischman suspects it may be the longest pretrial detention in U.S. history.

Nelson is frustrated it took years for resolve his case, and hopes lawmakers will see the backlog for the crisis it is. “Do better,” he said. “You have people’s [lives] in your hands. You’ll never get that time back.”

This story is part of a series about the constitutionally-guaranteed access to legal representation in court, and the challenges that arise when the supply of defenders is limited. Part one in the series looks at defendants’ desperate need for representation. Part two covers judges forced to take actions that may erode the public’s trust in the judicial system. In part three, former public defenders explain why they left the job. Part four looks at the search for solutions. Part five shows the agency’s director admits to lawmakers the Defender Council doesn’t have enough attorneys. Part six explains why the Defender Council does not want to pay for investigative resources for an indigent defendant. Part seven explains why a man has been behind bars for 10 years waiting for his day in court. Part eight reveals how the state agency has spent thousands on improving its image after ANF investigations. Part nine brings viewers up to date in the case of Maurice Jimmerson, the inmate profiled in part seven. Part 10 breaks down the allegations involving a lawsuit filed against the Georgia Public Defender Council by a civil rights organization.

If there’s something you would like Atlanta News First Investigative Reporter Andy Pierrotti to look into, email andy.pierrotti@wanf.com.