As if raising thousands of dollars, knocking on the doors of strangers, and stressing out your friends and family wasn’t enough…when I ran for office in 2012 I had one of the most embarrassing experiences a person could have. I was accused by someone of committing a crime and the incident follows me to this day. To this day, that embarrassing moment is also one of the things that reminds me of my success. What had happened was ….
In 2012, I entered the race for State Representative for District 62 in Georgia. I was the underdog. I was the only woman, the youngest candidate, and by far had the least public name recognition in the area of politics. Despite being a political unknown, I had long been a hard worker. I was the hometown girl who knew far more of the 54,000 people in the district than I thought.
Before I ran, I worked for the Fulton County District Attorney’s office where I was the Director of the Community Prosecution unit and the Zone 4 Community Prosecutor. In that role, I prosecuted repeat offenders but I also worked closely with the police, citizens, and businesses to reduce crime. One of the areas I spent hours of time was the Camp Creek Marketplace which is also the location of the crime I was falsely accused of committing.
I left the DA’s office to open my own practice as a criminal defense attorney and began taking cases immediately. Just six short months after opening my practice I decided to run for office. The primary election was for the most part clean. There was the traditional yard sign stealing and a couple of contentious candidate forums, but overall the candidates focused on their race. That was until somebody saw me as the front runner and they got scared and desperate.
My team was a well-oiled machine making sure we reached out to voters directly. Our campaign plan was tight. The work we put in during the early weeks of the primary had us primed for an easy win and there was nothing stopping me from walking directly into the seat until …
A woman I did not know accused me of breaking into her locker at LA Fitness, stealing her debit card, and charging up more than $500.00 in sundresses and lotion on her card. She reported the crime to the East Point police department. Supposedly the woman did her own investigation and got LA Fitness to provide her with a list of everyone who had entered the gym that morning. I was one of those people.
During that time, I exercised regularly. I need to stop for a second and reflect on the fact I was able to wake myself up at 4am in the morning and make it to the gym before the sun came up to run on the treadmill before my busy day. Something I have not been able to convince myself to do since 2012. My experience that year took all the fun out of the gym for me. I continue to pay my monthly fees for two years after I stopped going because I had convinced myself I would get back to my early morning routine one day. I am still waiting on that.
It was not a secret that I frequented the gym because while in candidate mode I used every spare moment to campaign. Before I left the gym each morning I left campaign flyers in the locker room, showers and on the row of treadmills. Any supporters of my opponent could tell which days I went to the gym by the bright purple flyers that magically appeared throughout the place.
The alleged victim then obtained a video from Target of the person who used her card. Technology allowed them to zero in on the exact time and register where the fraudulent purchase was made. They had video of the person walking out. The victim claims she took this video and compared it with the small number of women who checked into the gym that day and I was the closest match and therefore I had to be the person who stole her debit card.
She took the case to the East Point Police Department. In my role as a community prosecutor I worked directly with the East Point police. The officers, treating me like one of their own, always referred to me by my last name. Not ADA Blackett Jones or Attorney Jones but simply “Blackett Jones.” You have seen the television shows and movies where a police chief runs in the room yelling for a beat officer by last name “Axel” “Johnson” “Smith.” That really happens and a simple last name is how the officers identify themselves and how they identified me. I felt like one of them.
It did not take long for the buzz around the department to pick up that someone accused Blackett Jones of stealing from Target. The officers researched the case, knew what I looked like and decided there was no evidence that it was me. Simply looking at the video it was clear that the woman in the video looked Latino or maybe even white. The police did not find enough probable cause to issue a warrant or even bring me in for an interview.
However, this alleged victim was relentless. She complained to the command staff that she wanted action or she was going to the media. Not wanting to be accused of not doing their job, the detective took the next step and went to the District Attorney’s office. Of course upon hearing a former Chief Senior Assistant District Attorney was involved the matter went straight to the top. The District Attorney has a public integrity unit. Assistant DA’s in that unit are assigned to those cases where a public figure, police officer or other high profile person is accused of a crime. This unit has the difficult task of taking an unbiased look into matters that involve people who in other prosecutor’s offices might get special treatment simply because of who they are. It was their job to investigate every case with the same zeal not matter who the suspect was.
The District Attorney and his public integrity unit reviewed the video, the information from LA Fitness, and talked directly with the assigned detective. My former colleagues could see immediately that the video was not me. However, due diligence was still required. I was interviewed about my involvement. I was happy to explain where I was during the time of the theft. My alibi was corroborated and the case went nowhere, no file was opened, and we thought it would end there.
Rather than take their word for it, this relentless “victim” wanted someone to pay. However, she did not want to investigate who may have really been the real culprit. Georgia has a process called a “private warrant.” A private warrant allows individuals who believe they are victims of a crime to have a judge listen to their case and determine if there is sufficient probable cause for a warrant to be issued. A private warrant has the same effect as a police warrant or a grand jury warrant issued by the District Attorney’s office. Due to the fact someone can be arrested for the allegations, the court is required to have a hearing on the matter and give both sides a chance to present their facts.
When I received notice of the private warrant I was annoyed, angry, and highly suspicious of who was behind these antics. The hearing was just before the election date. Although I knew without a doubt that the case would be dismissed, I was annoyed at the time I had to take off of the campaign trail to address these unfounded allegations. It was a distraction.
Listening to the advice of my friends and generally accepted good counsel, “a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.” I wanted to go into court alone, guns blazing, to defend myself. But instead, I listened to wisdom and one of my biggest supporters, Kimani King agreed to go in with me pro bono. I still owe him several favors. The campaign had depleted my personal funds, my business was brand new, and I dared not used the donations of my supporters to defend against these personal attacks. I couldn’t imagine spending money on a lawyer when I was a lawyer.
There are tons of ironic facts that appeared to laugh at me throughout this experience. I remember, in preparation for the hearing I went back to LA Fitness, which I started to avoid after I learned about the accusations from the DA’s office. I sat in the parking lot, mentally preparing myself to not snap on the person who helped me because it wasn’t their fault this woman was manufacturing this entire lie. I looked up at a sign on the poll in front of me that read “Put away your belongings. Do not leave valuable items in your car.” Hard eye roll.
Those signs were install after months of me meeting with the property managers, land owners and businesses in the area because of the growing rash of thefts from the entire shopping center. Before I left the DA’s office I spent weeks researching camera systems, convincing the police to increase patrols, and working with the property managers to get additional security to reduce the theft in the shopping center. The most the shopping center was willing to do was invest in these signs. Now here I am being accused of stealing from the exact same shopping center where I tried to reduce crime. How fitting! How embarrassing! How annoying!
On the day of court, I was prepared with witnesses, evidence, and proof as if I was being accused of murder. I remember walking into the courthouse as I did hundreds of times before in my six years as a prosecutor. But this time my heart fluttered as I tried to fight back the tears of humiliation.
On my way in I ran into a friend, Senior Assistant District Attorney Fani Willis. Fani was a 5am LA Fitness person as well. We have similar features and to this day I wonder why they didn’t choose her as a suspect too. I’m pretty sure the answer was she was not a candidate for office.
As we walked up the Pryor St. stairs and into security she looked down at my foot and said “what did I tell you about that tattoo? Voters won’t like that.” Ironically, Fani and I had a conversation in the first weeks of my campaign about both wearing weave and covering the large tattoo on my left foot while on the campaign trail. It was her belief the older voters wouldn’t like the unnatural hair and would be turned off by the tattoo.
I agreed with Fani’s initial assessment. I toned down my weave to a more natural style and began covering my tattoo when on the campaign trail. Although I am very proud of the symbol that is dedicated to my daughter that displays her middle name “Pride,” I know everyone is not a tattoo fan. As Fani described it, “its like putting a permanent bumper sticker on a Bentley.” Although I disagree and believe tattoos are one of the oldest human practices and present a culture as old as time, I knew that she was not the only person who would be distracted by my body art.
Every day while on the campaign trail I covered my foot with makeup and skin toned stockings or shoes the hid the design. During my downtown however, I kept my foot art displayed. However, on the day of court, I was sure to wear the tattoo uncovered and I also wore bright red heels to bring attention to my feet. Frankly the tattoo didn’t need the red accent. Although I originally thought I put it in an inconspicuous place, from the beginning, even people who towered over me immediately looked down at my foot when the tattoo was visible. Most either questioned, “what does that say?” or looked down at the tattoo and then up at my conservative business attire and then began screwing up their face as if their mind was trying to compute the juxtaposition.
I wore my tattoo out because although the video didn’t give a clear face shot of the person walking out of Target after allegedly using the stolen debit card, it did show two things – her hairline and her feet. The woman in the video wore flip flops as she casually strolled out of the store. Her feet were clear and did not display the beautifully drawn cursive symbol of my first child. One of the many pieces of evidence I intended to display in court. I told Fani why I was there that day and why I was so happy I had that tattoo to distinguish me from this woman in the video.
The other, very embarrassing evidence was my weave. Thank God I didn’t listen to Fani and remove all of my weave. First because the campaign trail was brutal. As a woman I was expected to look polished at all times. As much as I love my coily curls, my natural hair would not have made it through my 15 hour days where I was expected to look fresh both at the 8am breakfast meeting and the 8pm community forum.
The weave style my stylist and I chose was one that required the absolute least amount of daily work possible. That meant braiding my hair and sewing the weave onto it. We decided on partial bangs so I could leave out as little of my natural hair as possible. To accomplish this the stylist put a small braid around the front ends of my hair up to the part. The style was very cute and it meant my hair would look exactly the same way every time a voter saw me. It also meant my hair could only be in that exact same style every day.
The woman in the video had her hair pulled back in a tight bun. Her hairline, which was the most visible thing in the video, had an odd U shape. I personally have always been self conscious of my larger than average four head. I “lovingly” refer to it as a five head when I tell my children they are lucky they did not inherit it. My five head that was passed down from my grandmother to my mother and then to me does not have a U shaped hairline. I was prepared to let the judge fully examine my sewn in hair piece and asked my stylist to attend the hearing to testify to when she put in my weave unit.
Unfortunately, my stylist was out of town. But I came to court with a hair tie on my wrist fully prepared to show the judge that the person in the video could not possibly be me. When I attempted to pull my hair back the braided natural hair and the weave track would create a huge hump that could not be smoothed down. The weave which was sewn to a track could only go in one direction. If I needed to pull my hair back, I could do a swoop over my five head with the bangs. Pulling my hair straight back was not an option. However, the Matlock moment I planned to pull out as evidence was not my main proof.
Private warrant hearings are routine and short. Although I had been in private practice for only a short time, I represented several clients who went through this process. As a baby prosecutor I was worked the night shift in the 24 hour complaint room. In the complaint room Assistant District Attorneys process every arrest that is made in the county. There was a shelf of “private warrant” cases in the complaint room that attorneys were supposed to research and process during their down town. These were the cases where the private warrant judge decided there was probable cause and the case was sent to the DA’s office to be indicted or accused. During my time in the complaint room these