District Attorney Julia Slater takes center stage

Julia Slater defends her style, her office’s work and says she will seek re-election

jmustian@ledger-enquirer.com, tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comMay 15, 2011 

District Attorney Julia Slater paced before the jury in Michael Curry’s murder trial, wielding the ominous red bush ax that more than 25 years ago was used to slaughter Curry’s wife and kids.

“How long would this take?” she asked, swinging the weapon twice to drive home the speed and force of each blow, noting the killer needed only five to butcher the family, two each for wife Ann and 4-year-old daughter Erika, and only one for 20-month-old Ryan.

She lowered her voice and then raised it, pausing at times for effect, carefully pacing her closing argument.

Shortly after the jury announced its one-word verdict, delivering Slater the biggest victory of her career and a conviction her predecessors feared to pursue, Curry’s stunned defense attorney voiced an unflattering critique of Slater’s closing:

“You know,” Bob Wadkins told a reporter, “she’s a thespian, and she’s used to giving performances.”

In an interview last week with the Ledger-Enquirer, Slater said she routinely draws upon her three decades in theater but called it “misguided to accuse someone of being a thespian, especially somebody who is in law and does what we do.”

“I think most attorneys, including Mr. Wadkins, are dramatic type people when they’re involved in a trial,” Slater said. “I can no more divorce my theatrical experience from myself than I would be able to my motherhood. It’s a part of me.”

With the courtroom as her stage, Slater has embraced her role as the first female chief prosecutor of the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit, pursuing cold cases like Curry and the 1992 slaying of then-school superintendent Jim Burns, and inheriting others like convicted Stocking Strangler Carlton Gary, whose death-row appeals continue. After her curtain call next year, Slater said she hopes voters will acknowledge her efforts at reform and allow her an encore performance.

“I will seek re-election,” Slater, 44, said without hesitation Thursday.

Gray Conger, the Republican she unseated in 2008, said last week he had “given some thought” to challenging Slater in a rematch. Conger’s former assistant, Mark Post, also has said he’s exploring a run.

Conger, who held the office 12 years, said he has been disappointed in Slater’s performance, citing her seeking the death penalty in not a single case since taking office, a departure for a circuit that for its size has sent a disproportionate number of murderers to death row.

“A lot of her supporters are not in favor particularly of harsh punishment, and she’s got to keep her supporters happy,” Conger said.

Conger and other critics have said Slater should have sought the death penalty for Charles Johnston, who on March 27, 2008, killed three people in a shooting spree at Doctors Hospital, where he blamed a nurse for his mother’s 2004 death. At age 64, Johnston pleaded guilty May 21, 2009, and was given three consecutive life sentences.

Slater acknowledged that neither she nor anyone on her staff has tried a capital case. She said she has not sought the death penalty yet because she hasn’t “found a case that I thought was appropriate for that.”

More than halfway through her term, Slater has encountered her fair share of skeptics and naysayers.

“It’s not a perception carried by certainly everybody,” Slater said. “But there are some that think the DA should be a man, that all lawyers should be men. Some people just come from that school, from that way of thinking that decision-makers and those in charge should be men.

“I’ve faced some challenges with people that believe that way,” she added.

While declining to discuss details of the Curry case, she acknowledged the magnitude of the verdict.

“I’m proud of our ability to work on these cold cases and to take those steps of faith out into really old cases that are not always easy to prosecute,” she said. “For the community to see a resolution to something like the Curry case, and to be able to finally kind of put that to bed I think is important.”

Asked whether critics consider her soft on crime, she replied: “I haven’t heard that since the Curry trial.”

James Johnson, Ann Curry’s father, said he and Ann’s mother, Bernice, recognized the high stakes of going to trial. “We feel that after being elected district attorney, she placed her entire political career at risk to pursue justice for Ann, Erika, Ryan and Tyler,” he said of Slater.

Added his wife: “The verdict is there, and no one can take that away from us.”

But not everyone has been pleased with Slater’s performance. “She hasn’t become the DA that I envisioned,” said Mark Shelnutt, a local defense attorney who campaigned for Slater before falling out with his former colleague. “I’m not saying she hasn’t done some things, but the overall feel is things haven’t changed that much.”

Slater said she has made significant changes to streamline the operation of her office, assigning assistants to focus on outlying counties within the circuit and taking on cold cases that are particularly difficult to prosecute.

Supporters say the Columbus native is suited to the role voters gave her.

Growing up

Little Julia Fessenden grew up playing with boys.

“I was a tomboy,” she said of her childhood. “I don’t know, maybe it gave me some courage that maybe sometimes girls that were raised when I was raised didn’t have.”

She grew up in Tanglewood, the neighborhood east of Veterans Parkway and north of West Britt David Road. Her parents, Chuck and Jeanne Fessenden, still live there on Bellanca Street. Their two daughters, three years apart, grew up playing in the creek bottoms that traverse the neighborhood.

The older daughter today is Laura Fessenden Walker, 47, vice president of sales for the Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau. Her little sister still recalls her parents telling her in the summer to be home by the time the mimosa blooms closed. Her father said that’s the deadline his parents gave him, so he used it for his kids.

Chuck Fessenden said both his daughters attended Britt David Elementary School before it became exclusively a magnet, and both went from there to Arnold, today a middle school.

Their high school attendance zone would have assigned them to Columbus High, but he always made sure they got transferred to Hardaway High School, to study music under David Gregory, whom the Fessendens held in high regard. Today Gregory is the director of bands and coordinator of music education at Georgia’s Reinhardt University.

The Fessendens were regulars in Springer Opera House productions, and Julia got in on the act when she was just 5 years old, singing in the chorus for “Oklahoma.” In school she was so self-motivated, so self-disciplined, that she excelled without much oversight, her parents said.

She graduated from Hardaway in 1984. So did John Darr, today the Muscogee County sheriff.

When the Curry murders occurred in August 1985, Julia Fessenden was off to Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., where she had two scholarships, one from Columbus’ Hardaway Foundation. Today she can’t recall hearing about the horrific homicides back in Columbus.

From Stephens she got a degree in musical theater. But having excelled on the debate team back at Hardaway, she still was set on going to law school. “I absolutely thrived in that environment,” she said of debate. “A lot of people think debating is a step toward becoming a lawyer.”

She worked as a clerk in a Denver law firm for two years and then went to Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., where she earned her law degree in 1993. Having served as a Girl Scout, she wanted to give something back, so she spent summers working at Camp Concharty in Harris County.

Stephen Slater was a Fort Benning soldier when the two met at a Columbus restaurant in the summer of 1991. They started dating. After law school she got a job clerking for Muscogee Superior Court judges. In 1994, she became an assistant district attorney under then-District Attorney Doug Pullen, today a Superior Court judge. She and Stephen Slater married in 1996. In 2003, they had twin boys, born prematurely, and she went into private practice so she’d have more time to spend with her children.

Today her boys are 8 years old. They went from having developmental disabilities to attending gifted classes.

Julia Slater and her mother continue to serve on a parent advisory council for The Medical Center’s neo-natal nursery, which cared for her twins.

Back when she still had time, Slater continued to act in Springer productions. Her last was “Annie” in 2002.

“Julia was always somebody who had done her homework before showing up at the theater, and always was on the forefront of preparation to do the work,” said Paul Pierce, the Springer’s artistic director. “As a performer, particularly in the musical theater, a lot of times you can get away with a big smile and flashy moves. Julia was somebody who always made it a point to bring some unique aspect of honesty to her roles. And she saw, at least in the work that I did with her, each role and each character as a different challenge.”

Pierce knows how critics can use “thespian” as an insult: “Her approach to performing I always saw as coming from a place to find the truth. Some people look at theater and acting and they say, ‘Oh, they do make believe and are essentially professional deceivers.’ But the truth of the matter is the best actors do the direct opposite: They look for the honesty and truth in something and go from there.”

Changes in office

During her 2008 campaign, Slater promised to bring change to the community. She said she has achieved that in part through reorganizing her office, prosecuting cold cases and working toward clearing a backlog of other cases she inherited from her predecessors.

Her priority, she said, is boosting the morale of the team she relies on: her assistant district attorneys and investigators.

“I’ve tried to motivate them and empower them and give them the resources they needed, and give them enough room to do what they needed to do,” she said. “I wanted to do that for their morale, so that they felt like they had the power to carry out their job sufficiently.”

Slater said her office has “made a dent” in a stack of unresolved cases. In November 2008, about 600 defendants were awaiting trial in Superior Court. That number had shrunk to about 500 last November, she said.

“I think part of that is due to just making it a priority within this office to make sure that we move those cases in a reasonable way,” she said. “Part of that is based on the fact that the city council and the mayor gave me another assistant DA last summer.”

She still gets complaints about pending cases, but fewer than when she took office, she said, adding that complaints can come from both sides of a case: “Justice delayed for the defendant is also justice delayed for the victims.”

Slater reorganized the way her office handles cases in the circuit’s five outlying counties: Previously two assistant district attorneys were responsible for all cases in Chattahoochee, Harris, Marion, Talbot and Taylor counties.

“They couldn’t do all the work by themselves, so they would call on the state-paid assistant DAs in the Columbus office, but it was not an organized, planned thing,” Slater said. “Those two people trying to run all five counties was bad for our communication with our outlying counties.”

Now, all of the office’s state-paid employees are assigned permanently to one or two outlying counties, she said. Assistant District Attorney Richard Mobley, for instance, prosecutes all cases for Harris County.

“That has not only given those sheriffs and clerks someone they can call on that can always take care of their needs in the outlying counties, but it also gives the assistant DAs the predictability, helping their morale. They’re essentially married to the case ... so they’re intimately familiar with it, which is much better for our victims,” she said.

Slater also has her assistants specialize in particular crimes. One handles arson cases; another is responsible for monitoring the sheriff’s sex offender registry; a third is assigned to “cybercrimes,” Slater said.

Beyond her duties as DA, she tries to stay in touch with constituents by attending any event to which she’s invited, and speaking to community groups whenever asked, she said. She continues to serve her own church, St. Thomas Episcopal, where Bob Wadkins, her opponent in the Curry trial, also is a member. Slater serves on its governing board and leads its children’s church.

“I think she’s very compassionate and passionate,” said Doug Hahn, the rector there. “I think she really believes in what she’s doing.”

Like her background in theater and her experience as a mother, Slater’s growing up in Columbus gives her experience and insight upon which to draw, she said: “I know the schools.... I know the people. I don’t necessarily know all the big names in Columbus, but I do know enough people that I feel like I get a good sense of what’s going on sometimes. I think it’s a huge advantage to have grown up here.”

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