As the chief prosecutor in the six-county Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit, the district attorney can race the engine of the criminal courts or let it idle.
Judges are the ultimate authorities in all cases, but prosecutors make crucial decisions about which cases progress and which do not.
The district attorney can dispose of a case by dropping it altogether, negotiating a plea or bringing it to trial. Or the prosecutor can postpone presenting the case to a grand jury and just let the suspect sit in jail.
"That's probably the No. 1 complaint about district attorneys in general, is that they won't go on and indict a case," said Robert Wadkins, the attorney who heads the circuit's public defender office here in Columbus.
Soon after defeating Republican Gray Conger in 2008, District Attorney Julia Slater got a grand jury to indict Wadkins' client Michael Curry in a triple-homicide that was 24 years old -- the Aug. 28, 1985, bush-ax slayings of Curry's eight months' pregnant wife Ann, daughter Erika, 4, and son Ryan, 20 months.
It was a particularly heinous case that Slater's Republican opponent and former Conger lieutenant Mark Post says police proffered to Conger shortly before the 2008 election, after which Post left to become a prosecutor in Georgia's Pataula Judicial Circuit, based in Cuthbert.
Slater took the case to trial, and won. Curry's now serving a life sentence.
It was Slater's crowning achievement, though critics like Wadkins say the case is weak, and question whether it will hold up on appeal. The Georgia Supreme Court let the conviction stand.
Critics like Post question whether Slater more often should seek the death penalty for egregious crimes.
The bloodiest crimes make the biggest headlines, but the everyday work of the district attorney's office is moving cases, else the court system chokes on the influx.
Slater takes pride in her efforts to reduce what she said was a backlog of cases awaiting her when she took office. In her first year, she and her 22 prosecutors closed 28 percent more cases than the year before, she said. They closed 25 percent more cases in 2011 than in 2010, and each year they close more criminal cases than they open, she said.
Each year about 4,000 new cases open in the circuit, around 3,000 in Muscogee County with the rest in the circuit's other five counties of Chattahoochee, Harris, Marion, Talbot and Taylor.
Keeping cases moving can save taxpayers' money, said Wadkins, who figured jailing a defendant costs about $50 a day or $1,500 a month.
Post agreed that efficiency is important, but justice is the top priority, and the public also pays a price for letting criminals off too easy: "You've got the cost of not incarcerating people," he said, noting the burglar who gets out of jail on probation today may kill a homeowner who catches him committing another break-in tomorrow.
"The district attorney's primary responsibility is to protect the public," he said.
But he took no issue with how Slater has reorganized the office to serve the circuit's outlying counties, assigning an assistant DA the primary responsibility of serving each one. She assigned two to Harris, second only to Muscogee in the number of cases.
In Taylor County, the farthest from Columbus, she opened an office in Butler and assigned Assistant District Attorney Wayne Jernigan to it. Other prosecutors are expected to visit their counties at least twice a month when court is not in session to make themselves available to investigators and the general public, and serve on local boards such as those dealing with child abuse and other family issues.
Those assistant district attorneys also can close cases when defendants are ready to plead, without waiting for a county's term of court to begin, Slater said. That reduces the number of cases left to handle when court is in session, she said.
"We're building relationships with the counties that didn't exist before," said Slater, who also touts her introducing an online case-management system prosecutors can access through their laptop computers no matter where they are.
Though he did not object to how Slater serves the outer counties, Post did fault the incumbent for another use of staff: She sometimes has too many assistants working one trial, he said.
He said Slater had four staff attorneys at the two-week trial of Kareem Lane, accused in the cold-case slaying of then-Muscogee School Superintendent Jim Burns in 1992. That trial ended with a hung jury, a mistrial.
Putting four staff attorneys on one case is tying up too many workers for too long, Post said. If increased efficiency is a target, that's aiming in the wrong direction, he said: "If that's the consideration, you have to use your resources wisely."
He also wondered why Slater has refused to explain her reasons for not seeking the death penalty for Charles Johnston, sentenced to three consecutive life sentences in May 2009 after pleading guilty to killing three people during a 2008 shooting spree at Doctors Hospital, where he blamed a nurse for his mother's 2004 death.
Of the homicide cases that have come up since she took office, Slater so far has vowed to seek capital punishment only for Ricardo Strozier, charged with murder in the Sept. 7, 2010, shooting of 25-year-old Heath Jackson, who had come to his Carter Avenue home around lunchtime and found a burglar inside. She said she won't discuss what factors she considers in deciding whether to seek the death penalty.
After a high-profile case like Johnston's has been closed, a district attorney ought to be able to explain that reasoning, Post said.
"Once a case is over, and there are no appeals to be had -- there's a guilty plea or all the appeals are exhausted -- it strikes me as a general rule, you ought to be able to say why you made a particular decision," he said. "You really should apply the same standards in every case."
The public wants to know what principles underlie your judgment, and if a case appears to warrant the death penalty and you don't seek it, people ask why. A district attorney should answer, he said.
He said Slater is off-base in her comments about inheriting a backlog of old cases.
"That's not true. There was no backlog," he said.
He said she also was disingenuous during a local TV appearance Wednesday, when she said she had received no campaign contributions from convenience store operators later arrested for commercial gambling.
Campaign disclosures showed Pearl-Sheel Inc. gave $2,400 to Slater's campaign. The company was formed by Viraj K. Shah, arrested June 18 at the Steam Mill Food Mart.
Slater responded to that Saturday, in an email writing:
"I said in the debate 'I do not think there was any person who donated to my campaign who was later arrested for any charges.' There was no person who donated to my campaign who was arrested. Many businesses of many types have donated to my campaigns.... In 2011 a business named Pearl-Sheel, Inc. contributed to my campaign. In 2012, my office was involved in an investigation into commercial gambling in Columbus. My office prosecutes those who break the law without regard to circumstances outside the case. Additionally, we have no way to know that a person who was arrested also owns a business which contributed to a campaign."
Post said the contribution still came from a "common source," regardless of the name, and keeping such contributions is "obviously a conflict."
Slater said no suspects sought her favor in return for donations. "Completely separately, I have met with business owners about commercial gambling and reminded them that paying cash for amusement machines is illegal and those who do so will be prosecuted," she wrote.
Police said they have consulted Slater in such investigations, and she has never discouraged them from charging a campaign donor in a gambling case.