DA: Witnesses must testify to win cases

Feb. 4—To successfully prosecute a case, the Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney's office needs witnesses to testify in court.

That is more challenging than it should be, prosecutors said Thursday, and they are imploring the public to cooperate with them to help put criminals behind bars.

Chief Assistant District Attorney Nigel Lush said compared to where he has worked previously in metro Atlanta, people are hesitant to testify in Glynn County.

"I have never battled harder to get people to show up to court," Lush said during a community dialogue gathering hosted Thursday by the DA's office at College of Coastal Georgia. "And these are people who have already spoken to police."

Lush spoke for nearly 45 minutes about the importance of witnesses in prosecuting cases. People often have the misconception that criminal trials play out like they do on television, Lush said. The reality is quite different.

"So much of what happens in a courtroom is shaped by television," Lush said. "What our cases come down to most of the time are the witnesses."

He understands that some people may be unwilling to cooperate with police for a myriad of reasons. Too often, however, local prosecutors must use a material witness warrant to compel someone to testify in a case, Lush said.

He showed video evidence used in two recent murder cases that showed 10 or more people in the area where shootings happened. The people in the videos could clearly see both incidents, making them witnesses prosecutors needed in order to get a guilty verdict. When the time came to testify in court, however, Lush said few people outside of family members of the victim were willing to testify.

"We want to hear from you why...we are having this problem in this community in particular, and what we can do about it," Lush said.

The prosecution of cases is a key spoke in the wheel of justice, he said, and doing it successfully means building safer communities for everyone.

There are plenty of cases to prosecute in the Brunswick Judicial Circuit, including in Glynn County.

District Attorney Keith Higgins spoke before Lush to the crowd of nearly 100 and walked them through what the DA's office does. Prosecuting criminal cases is the biggest part of that.

As of Thursday night there were 5,709 open cases circuit-wide, which in addition to Glynn includes Camden, Wayne, Appling and Jeff Davis counties.

Glynn County has 1,933 open felony cases.

Higgins said his office is lucky because he has a fully staffed team of assistant district attorneys. There are 15 working in the circuit across the five counties.

Since he took office in January 2021, Higgins said he has been able to increase staff by 33%, boost the number of prosecutors from 10 to 15 and increase the level of experience of assistant district attorneys by 63%.

That will be imperative as the office moves forward and targets crimes like gang activity, which has grown in recent years.

"Whether you know it or not, we have a gang problem," Higgins said.

That is why he has coordinated with state authorities to host seminars and training for local law enforcement officers and his staff on recognizing gang activity and prosecuting it, Higgins said.

His office also serves the victims of crime, which is why he said he hired Yolanda Richardson, director of the Victims Services Division. She leads a staff of victims advocates who ensure that crime victims are properly informed and protected under the state's Victim's Bill of Rights, among other things.

Richardson said her division can always use volunteers to help carry out its mission.

"If you have the time, I can find something for you to do," she told the crowd.

Ultimately, Higgins said he wanted to hear from the community about what the DA's office can do to improve its ability to prosecute criminals and fight crime.

"Help us figure out what we can do to make this a better community," Higgins said.