Robert James' big cases included Andrea Sneiderman, school contract rigging and a corruption case against DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis.
Robert James’ big cases included Andrea Sneiderman, school contract rigging and a corruption case against DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis. (John Disney/Daily Report)

DeKalb County’s top prosecutor found himself in the eye of the storm in 2013.

District Attorney Robert James Jr. created much of the whirlwind himself: boldly pursuing murder and conspiracy charges against Andrea Sneiderman, prosecuting high-ranking school district officials for rigging construction contracts and convening a special purpose grand jury to investigate public corruption, which ultimately led to the indictment of the county’s most powerful politician, CEO Burrell Ellis.

As the driving force in these prominent and complex prosecutions, James is the Daily Report’s Newsmaker of the Year.

The Sneiderman case, the sordid tale of a wealthy Dunwoody widow accused of conspiring with her former boss and lover to kill her husband in 2010, grabbed national attention and top spots on 24-hour cable news networks.

Now James, 41, is ramping up for another high-profile case that could solidify his reputation as a young-gun prosecutor, or, if he fails, convince people that he has overreached.

In his sight is suspended CEO Ellis, a fellow Democrat, who has been accused of shaking down county vendors for campaign contributions. The trial could start early next year.

“It’s all dependent on the outcome, but this could be a pivotal case in his career,” said criminal defense attorney Ken Hodges, who is a former Albany district attorney. “If he wins, he will come out the defender of the public. Getting out a corrupt public official is what every prosecutor should do. If he loses, he will have one powerful political enemy.

“As they say, if you shoot at the king, you’d better kill him,” Hodges said.

James, who is in the third year of his term as DA, has been transparent about his ambition to seek higher office. He told the Daily Report in August 2011, when he was chosen as an under-40 up-and-comer for our On the Rise list, that “Congress and the U.S. Senate sounds interesting.” In a recent interview, James was coy about seeking another public office, but said he doesn’t expect to retire from the DA’s office.

James grew up in Murfreesboro, Tenn., where his father was an assistant high school principal, and later a minister, careers that followed six years as a defensive back in the NFL. His mother was a teacher.

Before coming to Atlanta for law school, James studied history at Middle Tennessee State, where he played basketball and was president of the African American Student Association.

James said he has a deep faith in God, which he has relied on this year. During a recent interview, his desk was clear except for family pictures and a Bible opened to the 23rd Psalm.

“I thank God for sustaining us through everything we’ve seen this year. You know all these things all had the potential to turn left; they were all land mines,” said James. “I believe, I know that I’ve been divinely led so as though I have not stepped on those land mines.”

From the beginning of his legal career, James has been committed to work as a prosecutor. As a student at Georgia State University College of Law in the mid-1990s, James interned at the Rockdale County district attorney’s office and “caught the justice bug.”

A year out of law school, he handled misdemeanor prosecutions for Rockdale County because it had no solicitor-general at the time. In 2002, he joined the DeKalb DA’s office as an assistant under then-DA J. Tom Morgan, whom James has since gone up against in court and defeated in the Sneiderman case and in the recent prosecution of a former school district official.

Four years later, James won election as a Democrat to DeKalb’s solicitor-general post, ousting incumbent Shawn LaGrua, who was appointed by Gov. Sonny Perdue.

Since taking the helm of the DA’s office in 2011, James has won seats at the table in policy-making and the legal establishment. He was elected to the State Bar Board of Governors, and Republican Gov. Nathan Deal appointed him to his Judicial Nominating Commission, where he is the lone African-American and one of a handful of Democrats on a panel that has been exceptionally busy the last few years vetting and recommending judicial nominees.

“In the legal community, he is a well-respected voice,” said JNC co-chairman and top GOP lawyer J. Randolph Evans. “He’s one of the most active participants” on the JNC, Evans added. “If he’s missed a meeting, I don’t remember.” Evans tapped James last year to lead a JNC subcommittee that pared a list of more than 30 state Court of Appeals candidates down to a manageable 16 for interviews.

The state Democratic Party has reached its nadir in recent years and it will have to look for fresh candidates if it wants to make a comeback. David Dreyer, chairman of the group for young, professional progressives known as the Red Clay Democrats, said he’d like to see James run for attorney general. Dreyer said he’s been impressed with James’ grasp on politics and his constituency.

“You can tell he is ambitious and he is fearless. I can see that based on what he is willing to do,” said Dreyer, a business ligitator at Chamberlain, Hrdlicka, White, Williams & Aughtry.

Ambitious prosecutors often find that public corruption cases further their careers and James won his first major corruption case last month when a jury found former school district chief operating officer Pat Reid and her architect ex-husband, Tony Pope, guilty of racketeering for manipulating school construction contracts. Crawford Lewis, the former superintendent who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor obstruction, testified that Reid blackmailed him into signing off on construction contracts and add-ons. They are awaiting sentencing.

A trial gets the spotlight

It was the 2012 trial of former GE manager Hemy Neuman, accused of fatally shooting Andrea Sneiderman’s husband outside a Dunwoody day care center after he dropped off his son, that first placed James in the spotlight. Prosecutors grilled Sneiderman when she took the stand, treating her as a hostile witness in the trial of her husband’s killer. In several made-for-TV moments, she appeared curiously combative as a witness while prosecutors grilled her about her romantic relationship with the killer.

As Rusty Sneiderman’s family called for his widow to be held accountable for the slaying—but with only circumstantial evidence to support any complicity—James indicted her on murder, racketeering and a slew of other charges.

On the eve of trial, James backed down on the popular prosecution, telling the judge that further review of the evidence did not persuade him that Sneiderman was guilty of orchestrating the killing.

“It would be unjust and unethical for the district attorney’s office to go forward on charges that I am not 100 percent sure someone is guilty of,” James said this past July to DeKalb Superior Court Judge Gregory Adams, who was clearly annoyed at the last-minute motion.

James emphasized that he was not exonerating Sneiderman and he pushed forward with a two-week trial on perjury and obstruction charges. He took an active role in Sneiderman’s prosecution, questioning potential jurors and witnesses. He said it was a case he felt the public expected him to make.

James began and ended his closing arguments on Aug. 15 with the same dramatic synopsis: “A forbidden romance that ends in murder. Silence in the face of first suspicions of guilt. Lies, flat-out lies to conceal the truth to her family, her friends, to police and, yes, ladies and gentlemen, even a jury.” He re-enacted transcripts with flair and, at one moment, pointed at Sneiderman and yelled, “She lied!”

But Sneiderman’s conviction on nine of 13 charges related to lying about the case didn’t completely satisfy supporters or opponents of her prosecution, one side feeling that it wasn’t enough and the other saying it was a stretch.

“The whole thing smells,” said Steve Sadow, special counsel for high-profile criminal defense at Schulten Ward & Turner, in a July Daily Report article. Sadow said he had seen serious felony charges against defendants dropped approaching trial when a plea bargain was negotiated or when prosecutors suddenly lost a key witness. There were no reports of either in this case.

“I believe there was no evidence to back up the allegations from the get-go,” Sneiderman’s lead defense attorney Tom Clegg told the judge in July, unsuccessfully arguing for a continuance.

Much later, Clegg, a former veteran assistant district attorney in DeKalb, praised his courtroom foe as a good lawyer who enjoys arguing cases.

“He’s very persuasive. He is articulate and understands the rules of evidence. He has good instincts about how a particular case should proceed and he’s very, very good in a courtroom,” Clegg said.

What’s more, said Clegg, James appreciates that a DA wins respect from his staff when he goes into the courtroom. “If you’re supervising people trying cases on a regular basis, it helps for the staff to know that you are a kick-ass trial lawyer yourself and that you’re not just a bureaucrat or a manager.”

Clegg also said that while he obviously disagreed with the decision to indict his client for murder in 2012, he commends James for dismissing the charge himself rather than have a subordinate deal with it.

James said his decision to drop the charges just before trial was “gut-wrenching,” especially knowing television cameras were pointed squarely at him.

“You always try to put up the best case you have, but trial law is fluid,” he said. “You talk to people today and you have one impression, and then you talk to them a year from now or you find out more information and the facts on the ground change and you have to make decisions. It’s not different than going into a war.”

A principle of prosecutor first

James said he felt as if his principle of prosecutor first, politician second has been tempered by the experience.

“There were certain things that I had never had to deal with. I had never had to deal with public criticism—intense public criticism and scrutiny,” James said. “I had never had to deal with rebuilding part of my executive staff in the middle of the biggest cases that the county has ever seen.

“If it comes to saving my political skin over doing what’s right, I’m going to do what I believe to be right every time,” James added. “And that may not always be politically wise, but that’s an oath that I swore and it’s what I believe in. And when you decide you won’t walk away from fights that you know need to be found, you find yourself in the eye of the storm.

“Before this year, I worried about stuff like that … but I don’t anymore because I realize that if I do my job, I am going to be criticized. Everybody is an expert and everybody is a critic,” James added. “Sometimes, you have to make decisions when there is no good decision and you have to deal with the consequences, and that’s leadership.”

Sneiderman was convicted of nine of 13 counts of perjury, false statements, hindering the apprehension of a criminal and concealment of facts from investigators. She was sentenced to five years in prison. Her trial team included Morgan, the veteran DA for whom James worked as a budding assistant, Clegg and fellow former ADA John Petrey. (Sneiderman has vowed to appeal and has hired appellate attorney Brian Steel.)

James also had to meet managerial challenges during Sneiderman’s trial, namely putting together a new trial team in the midst of preparations. His former chief assistant, Don Geary, who headed up the case, left the office in December 2012 to work with newly elected Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds. Two other veteran ADAs went with Geary to Cobb: Mike Carlson, who prosecuted gang crimes; and John Melvin, who specialized in white collar prosecutions. Geary declined comment on his departure and his time working under James through a spokeswoman for the Cobb County district attorney’s office.

“The timing was tough,” said James. “I was not as prepared as I would have like to have been for it. We had to adapt and improvise, but again when you meet challenges like that and you overcome, you are not the same—you are stronger.”

In January, James promoted Kellie Stevens Hill, a former Fulton County assistant district attorney whom he had hired a year before, to take Geary’s place, and brought on Anna Green Cross, a chief assistant DA from Cobb, to be his deputy in charge of complex litigation and capital cases.

James said his management philosophy is to foster debate and frank conversations among his prosecutors and staff while also demanding a culture of mutual respect.

“I look for people who have that personality where they’re not going to treat the paralegals and the secretaries and the investigators like they’re the help, because once your morale starts going down, you can’t accomplish anything,” James said.

While James has said he doesn’t want to stay too long in the DA’s office, 2013 undoubtedly will shape his legacy.

If you ask James, he’ll tell you he thinks he’s doing pretty well so far.

“It’s been a tough year, but it’s been a good year,” he said.