It was standing-room only on the first floor with only a few vacant seats in the balcony Friday as the Georgia Supreme Court held a session in Columbus’ Springer Opera House, where more than 500 high school students came to watch.
Chief Justice Hugh Thompson said it likely was the first time the court had met in Columbus, or at least the first time in 30 years. The court occasionally meets at sites other than its Atlanta chambers so the public can better understand its function, he said.
Before hearing arguments in two cases unrelated to the venue, the judges paid tribute to Superior Court Judge John Allen, who recently retired as chief judge of the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit before becoming a senior judge who hears cases when needed.
Thompson said Allen over his career established a reputation for being “level-headed, even-handed and sure-footed.” He also praised Allen’s ethics, noting that when Allen chaired the Judicial Qualifications Commission that regulates the judiciary, 40 judges either resigned or were removed from office for alleged misconduct.
The seven justices then heard arguments in a lawsuit spawned by an off-duty Atlanta police officer’s shooting a visitor while working security for a property manager at an apartment complex.
He was instructed to watch for intruders and to keep the handicapped parking spaces clear for disabled residents’ use. Sometime after 9 p.m. May 5, 2009, the officer, Reginald Fisher, saw visitor Tramaine Miller park in a handicapped space and enter the apartments.
When Miller came back out, Fisher approached the car to warn him about the handicapped spaces. Miller, who already had locked his car doors, took something from the car’s center console and put it in his mouth. Fisher thought it was crack cocaine.
Fisher ordered Miller to stop, but Miller pulled out and his car brushed against the officer, who then broke a car window with his baton. When Miller reached for something Fisher assumed was a weapon, the officer shot Miller in the face.
Miller had no drugs or weapons, and he sued, claiming those running the apartments were partly liable for Fisher’s actions. Attorneys for the apartment complex argued that Fisher was an independent contractor whose actions were not directed by the property owner or manager, and that he was acting as an Atlanta police officer enforcing the law.
The plaintiff’s lawyers countered that Fisher was acting as directed, because he’d been told to keep the handicapped spaces clear, and that’s why he approached Miller’s car to begin with.
The second case was a double homicide from Richmond County, where 22-year-old Cedric Walker was accused of killing his 16-year-old girlfriend and her 6-week-old son through asphyxiation.
The girlfriend’s mother discovered the bodies the night of Oct. 5, 2003. Walker initially denied having been at the girlfriend’s apartment, but in later statements to police he said he and girlfriend Mona Lisa Givens had been having sex when she suffered some sort of seizure. He tried to revive her by splashing water in her face, then propped her up on a couch before he fled in panic.
He told police he never saw the baby, who investigators said had “compression marks” on his face, indicating his head was pressed into the mattress to smother him.
Walker’s parole was revoked and he went to Ware State Prison, where another inmate later alleged Walker admitted killing the woman and her child with a choke hold. The witness claimed Walker said he did it because Givens had become pregnant by another man.
The defense Friday challenged whether Walker properly was read his rights before he incriminated himself talking to the police. If that was handled incorrectly, then his statements should have been thrown out, his attorneys said. They also claimed Walker’s trial lawyer was ineffective. The prosecution disputed all those claims.
As the session concluded, Thompson told the audience the court likely will render decisions in those cases sometime over the summer.
In an interview afterward, Thompson said holding sessions outside Atlanta helps the public understand the court’s purpose.
“I think we’re sort of like that part of government that people don’t even realize is there, or if they do realize it’s there, they don’t think about us because they don’t see anything that we do; they don’t see any manifestation of what we do,” he said.
“But the Supreme Court of Georgia still is responsible for doing what it was designed to do,” he added, “and that is to bring uniformity, consistency and predictability to the law. We have always had that function; we still have that function, and we understand that, and we try to do that.”