Updated at 10:20 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 16, 2018, with more information.
ELLIJAY, Ga. – A judge upheld the 4-year-old indictment of three former Calhoun High School students in a sexual battery case Friday, inching forward allegations that have barely moved since 2014.
Lawyers for Fields Benjamin Chapman, Andrew Isaac Haynes and Damon Avery Johnson argued in Gilmer County Superior Court that the district attorney and judge did not properly handle the indictment in August 2014. They said the court was not technically open to the public when the officials received the paperwork, and the charges should be thrown out.
On the day in question, the judge did not enter the room until 5:02 p.m., two minutes after the courthouse's advertised closing time. Neither the Gilmer County sheriff nor any of his deputies were in the room, even though state law requires one of them to be there. The sheriff's office's policy also dictates that a deputy examine the room before opening it up to the general public, which did not happen in this case.
But Assistant District Attorney Steve Spencer argued Friday that the courtroom was, in fact, open. He said nobody blocked members of the public from entering. The doors to the courthouse and the courtroom were unlocked, and surveillance video showed nobody tried to walk in. Judge Albert Collier agreed, denying the defense's motion to quash the indictment.
"Nobody has come in and said, 'I wanted access to the courtroom, but I didn't get a chance,'" Collier told the lawyers. " There's no one that was stopped by the deputies at the front door as they entered the courthouse. There's no evidence there was an impediment."
Collier's decision kept alive the bulk of the case. Had he quashed the indictment, District Attorney Alison Sosebee would need to bring the charges before a grand jury again. But because so much time has passed, the statue of limitations has run on most of the charges. All that would be left is a charge of aggravated sexual battery, which carries a statute of limitation of seven years.
After the hearing, Collier gave the defense attorneys 30 days to file a brief about other alleged errors they see in the indictment, such as misspellings of names and multiple counts of a charge for one specific act. Spencer will then have 15 days to respond with his own brief, pushing the next stage of this case into the beginning of 2019.
The Gilmer County Sheriff's Office arrested Chapman, Haynes and Johnson in May 2014 over allegations they attacked a female Calhoun High School classmate during a party in an Ellijay, Georgia, cabin after prom. The woman told investigators three football and baseball players penetrated her with their fingers against her will.
In August 2014, a grand jury indicted the men on charges that — combined — could put them in prison for 10 life sentences, plus an extra 351 years. Their attorneys have previously argued that indictment was overzealous. For example, they are each charged with two counts of aggravated sexual battery: once for each finger they allegedly used.
The grand jury also indicted each man on five counts of aggravated battery, two counts of sexual battery and public indecency. Johnson also faces a sodomy charge.
Since the indictment, the case has dragged on. As of May, defense attorneys Steve Williams and Jesse Vaughn still had not received discovery in the case. Williams said after Friday's hearing that the prosecution made evidence available to them this summer.
For hours Friday, Spencer and the defense attorneys played surveillance video of the courthouse on the day the grand jury indicted the men. The videos showed a front door, a hallway and a metal detector — with no people, no movement or any other action.
The video of the courtroom showed Sosebee, Judge Roger Bradley, the clerk of court and a bailiff sitting together at a table as Bradley pulled the indictment out of an envelope. Defense attorneys argued this was unusual and proof that the courtroom was not open to the public. Collier did not go for that argument.
Gilmer County Sheriff Stacy Nicholson testified that people rarely show up to watch the returns of indictments in court. Even though his department's safety plan calls for a deputy to sweep the room before opening it up to the public, he said that doesn't always happen.
George Weaver, who represents Chapman, made a lofty speech in his closing argument, telling Collier that the sloppiness of that day in August 2014 represents the corrosion of society.
"This has got to be done the right way," he said. "Our judicial system, we can chip away at. We can chip away at it. We can let the DA's office come in here and say, 'Oh, it doesn't really matter.' But once we do away with the bedrock of our community, of our civilization, of our constitution, we're gone. We may be gone already."
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.