A federal judge has postponed the bribery trial of former DeKalb County Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton for at least the third time.
The trial had been scheduled to open Aug. 10, but Channel 2 investigative reporter Richard Belcher learned that Sutton’s defense team asked for more time to review so-called discovery materials that prosecutors dropped on them in late July.
The bribery accusations -- two alleged $500 payments to influence a county construction project -- took place during Sutton’s second and final term as a county commissioner in DeKalb County.
Federal prosecutors obtained the indictment against Sutton in May 2019. The indictment plus other records reviewed by Channel 2 Action News show that FBI agents had been secretly recording her as far back as at least 2014.
Georgia State University law professor Caren Morrison, a former federal prosecutor, says it’s hard to see a clear reason for materials being turned over so late in the game and more than three years after the defendant was indicted.
“It is a little unusual for material -- particularly recordings or transcripts of recordings, which clearly they (prosecutors) had at the time of indictment -- it would be unusual for them to come in so late,” Morrison said.
But Morrison told Belcher she doesn’t see a tactical advantage for either side in another trial delay, even though a defendant may prefer it.
“If a person is out on bond, there’s really no reason to go to trial any time soon because you’re sort of delaying what might be a bad result for you in the end, so you know the longer you stay out and you don’t have to go to trial, the better,” Morrison said.
Channel 2 Action News reported last year that the FBI’s informant was Morris Williams, a long time senior official in DeKalb County and for years a seeming friend and political ally of Sutton.
He’s called Public Official #1 in the indictment, but the description of the jobs Williams held in DeKalb clearly identified him.
Now there is further evidence because one of the transcripts we reviewed names Williams as taking part in a recorded conversation with Sutton in July 2014.
In a separate filing we reviewed, prosecutors say Public Official #1 (Williams) will take the stand against Sutton.
Morrison said cross-examination will be difficult.
“They can literally attempt to undermine his credibility in any way they plausibly can,” Morrison said.
Morrison calls it open season on any witness like Williams.
“Anything, even non-criminal things, that if he over-inflated an expensive report or failed to pay a parking ticket on time, anything like that... All these things can be brought out to undermine his credibility in the eyes of the jury,” Morrison said.
Channel 2 Action News broke the story in January that defense lawyers wanted permission to introduce evidence to the jury that Sutton’s mental capacity was lessened as a result of aortic aneurysm and a stroke she suffered in late 2012, just before she began her second term in office.
Judge Mark Cohen allowed the defense to prepare a report, which is on file with the court but has not been released to the public.
Trial is now set for late October.
Neither prosecutors nor attorneys for the former commissioner provided a statement for this story.