Mawuli Mel Davis
Mawuli Mel Davis (John Disney/Daily Report)

Four Atlanta attorneys with broad portfolios of civil rights, social and criminal justice cases have banded together to defend—free of charge—an apparently homeless man charged as the sole perpetrator of a rush-hour inferno that caused the March 31 collapse of a well-traveled section of I-85 through the heart of Atlanta.

Lawrence Zimmerman

Three of the four attorneys—Mawuli Davis, Lawrence Zimmerman and Tiffany Roberts—said in interviews with the Daily Report this week that they were troubled by the speed with which Basil Eleby was detained and blamed as the lone perpetrator of the fire that allegedly began when an abandoned piece of furniture was set ablaze beneath an elevated section of I-85. The fourth member of the defense team, Gary Spencer, was in trial all week and could not be reached for comment.

Tiffany Roberts, Atlanta.

That fire soon spread to dozens of giant spools of polyethylene conduit that Georgia Department of Transportation officials subsequently acknowledged the state had stored for years under the elevated federal highway and which fueled the fire, quickly generating flames that shot as high as 40 feet in the air.

R. Gary Spencer, Atlanta.

Members of Eleby’s defense team suggested that the evidence to bolster a felony first-degree arson charge is thin and the investigation that led to his indictment cursory at best. Instead, they said they believe Eleby was quickly singled out and hustled into custody to fulfill the desire of public officials to quickly identify and punish a culprit—and perhaps absolve the department of any responsibility for its storage of dozens of giant spools of petroleum-based conduit under a critical section of the city’s highway infrastructure.

A spokesman for Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said, “The Basil  Eleby case is open and under investigation. We cannot comment at this time.”

Davis and Zimmerman said they were recruited to defend Eleby by Atlanta community activist Marcus Coleman, who called them shortly after Eleby’s arrest. Davis, in turn, recruited Spencer, a veteran public defender whom Davis said he has known and admired for years, and Roberts, a former law school classmate and public defender with a passion for social justice. Davis is a partner at DeKalb County’s The Davis Bozeman Law Firm. Roberts is co-founder of Lawyers United for a New Atlanta and deputy director of the National Institute for Teaching Ethics and Professionalism at Georgia State University’s School of Law.

Zimmerman most recently made news representing the mother of a toddler who was left to die by in a hot car by his father. Justin Ross Harris was convicted of the child’s murder last year.

Coleman said this week that he had reached out to Davis and Zimmerman because Eleby was homeless with an apparent history of mental challenges. As information began percolating out that the fire had been fueled by tons of DOT-owned conduit, Coleman said he concluded, “This individual cannot be facing this kind of punitive action and not the culprits responsible for the reason the fire got to the intensity it did to bring down the bridge.”

Zimmerman said that he responded to Coleman’s call because he, too, sensed that Eleby had been singled out as “the fall guy” for the infrastructure disaster. He also saw Eleby’s arrest as indicative of a bigger and largely unaddressed social problem that warranted attention. “When there are people living under a bridge, whether it’s him or other people, it’s a societal problem,” he said. “I saw it as an opportunity to help somebody and get a bigger message out there as far as homelessness and poverty.” And, he added, “From what I know, I am not sure he had anything to do with it.”

Zimmerman said that, although the arson charge lodged against Eleby alleges he intentionally began the fire, “Nobody thinks that lighting that fire would ever burn a highway bridge down. … What the hell was all that stuff doing under the highway to begin with?”

“I hate to think the state is going to … try to lay the blame all at his feet to avoid liability, but I put nothing past anybody in government,” he added. “Our focus is on fighting for him and clearing his name. He did not do this.”

Davis concurred. “The magnitude of it obviously is a motivating factor for the powers that be in trying to identify someone who is to blame,” he said. “Unfortunately, we live in a society where oftentimes the homeless and those who are said to have had substance abuse issues are easy targets. … We have to stick with them and let them know there are people who care about them and their lives matter and they are not just out there by themselves.”

Davis said Eleby’s arrest less than 24 hours after the interstate fire and his indictment just a week later “raised alarms and concerns—just based on our experiences in the cases we handle in our civil rights practices and in our general civil litigation practices—where people are profiled, people are minimized based on their economic status, and they are devalued.

“We see this [as part of that] same pattern of how poor people are often … depicted through the media. Our concern is that there isn’t evidence that Mr. Eleby ignited anything whatsoever. From what I have been able to ascertain, this [indictment] is based solely on the word of a suspect who was also living under [the highway] and struggling with substance abuse issues.”

Roberts said she was particularly disturbed by media and law enforcement depictions of Eleby that struck her as demonizing his apparent drug addiction, poverty and homelessness. Roberts said that, as a former public defender, she has defended the very poor who were often accused of crimes they didn’t commit and were subsequently dismissed.

Their arrests, she said, were prompted “because they were around an area when police were investigating or known to live in a particular place.” Eleby, she said, “reminded me of a lot of clients I had represented before.”

Roberts said that, regardless of the outcome of the criminal case against Eleby, “Every person deserves to be afforded zealous legal advocacy. … The individuals that have come together to represent Mr. Eleby really, really believe that.”

This individual cannot be facing this kind of punitive action and not the culprits responsible for the reason the fire got to the intensity it did to bring down the bridge.”

—Marcus Coleman, community activist who recruited lawyers