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Newton County Manager files petition seeking ouster of Coroner Dorothea Bailey-Butts
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COVINGTON — After just 29 days into a four-year term, Newton County Coroner Dorothea Bailey-Butts is facing a petition to have her removed from office.

The petition, filed Jan. 29 with the Georgia Coroner’s Training Council by County Manager Lloyd Kerr, alleges that Bailey-Butts has displayed a lack of professionalism that reflects negatively on the county and on the position of coroner throughout the state. The complaint states that Bailey-Butts, who refers to herself as Madam Coroner, “has demonstrated that she is wholly unable to competently serve as the county’s coroner.”

Under a law passed in 2019, the Coroner’s Training Council has the authority to review complaints regarding coroners and make recommendations concerning their retention, suspension or removal and to withdraw or suspend a coroner’s certification.

Kerr’s petition outlines several instances in January in which Bailey-Butts allegedly improperly handled the bodies of deceased individuals — a guest who died at the Hampton Inn on Jan. 16; a man who was killed in a two-car crash on Ga. Highway 212 on Jan. 22 and whose body was on the roadside for nearly three hours; and the apparent suicide by hanging of a 13-year-old boy on Jan. 27.

In addition, Kerr alleges that Bailey-Butts has publicly announced that she will not transport bodies, which is a fundamental duty required of her position by Georgia law, and that she has mismanaged the operation of her office by employing three deputy coroners who have not gone through the county’s hiring process.

Attempts by the Citizen to reach Bailey-Butts for comment Friday were unsuccessful.

In the Jan. 16 death at Hampton Inn, the petition states that the hotel manager was “very concerned” about the way Bailey-Butts handled the call. According to the petition, Bailey-Butts asked the hotel’s chief engineer to help her turn the body. “The chief engineer appropriately replied that ‘he was unable to assist them.’ Madam Coroner then grabbed him by his jacket to look at his name tag in a threatening manner.”

The process of removing the deceased guest from the hotel took more than three hours, according to the petition. During that time, the body was placed in a body bag and on a gurney. The gurney was reportedly left in the hallway during that time, with other hotel guests walking by.

“Understandably, this whole process was unsettling for the family members, the hotel staff and other guests,” the petition reads.

In the Jan. 22 fatal accident on Ga. Highway 212, Bailey-Butts allegedly arrived at the scene with two deputy coroners, took a few photos, put a body bag on the trunk of a car and advised a Sheriff’s Office deputy that “her investigation was complete and she was leaving.”

When first responders on the scene asked Bailey-Butts who would be removing the body, she reportedly replied that the Fire Department would take care of the body and that she “does not remove bodies.”

When told that the Fire Department could not transport a body in a firetruck, Bailey-Butts reportedly said, “I’m out,” and attempted to leave.

Sheriff’s deputies at the scene reportedly called Sheriff Ezell Brown. A sergeant with the Sheriff’s Office and two employees with a wrecker service removed the body from the wrecked vehicle. The sheriff then called Bailey-Butts, and she eventually transported the body.

In the Jan. 27 suicide, Bailey-Butts is accused of berating the family and first responders at the child’s home for “messing up her crime scene.”

She reportedly began conducting her investigation while the family was still in the room, including cutting off the child’s clothing. “Clothing should not have been removed,” Kerr wrote in the petition. “This interferes with evidence collection and could potentially destroy evidence. The young man should have been removed with the noose around his neck and his clothing should have been intact.

“Disturbingly, the family was in the room during this action,” the petition states. “Understandably, the family was mortified at how their young son’s body was mishandled.”

In addition to the allegations of mishandling death scenes, the petition alleges that Bailey-Butts extorted additional funding for her office from the Board of Commissioners on Jan. 19 by threatening commissioners with the release of damaging information that she had in a manila envelope.

When the Citizen filed an Open Records Act request for the documents in the envelope, Bailey-Butts initially claimed they were her personal information. The Citizen filed a second request, stating that the documents, by the coroner’s admission, were a matter of public importance and that since they were used by her in a public presentation regarding matters of public interest and concern, they must be produced. Bailey-Butts then responded that the documents are excluded from the Open Records Act under O.C.G.A 50-18-72(a)(3) because they would be an invasion of personal privacy. That code section refers to “records compiled for law enforcement or prosecution purposes to the extent that production of such records would disclose the identity of a confidential source, disclose confidential investigative or prosecution material which would endanger the life or physical safety of any person or persons, or disclose the existence of a confidential surveillance or investigation.”

Kerr’s petition notes that despite the county clerk’s efforts to persuade Bailey-Butts to disclose the documents, she has refused. “This is a violation of the Open Records Act and subjects the county to liability for Madam Coroner’s blatant disregard of the law,” the petition states.

A final note on “inappropriate action” in the petition states that Bailey-Butts went to a residence in Newton County to inform a woman that her child had been killed in an auto accident. When the woman collapsed, Bailey-Butts reportedly attempted to perform CPR, although the woman was alive.

“She fundamentally cannot complete her duties if she cannot determine if an individual is alive,” the petition states.

If the petition to remove Bailey-Butts is successful, Kerr said he believes the county would be able to hold a special election to fill the coroner’s position.

Bailey-Butts, a Democrat, defeated long-time coroner Tommy Davis, a Republican, in the November General Election.

Judge Johnson honored with renaming of Newton Judicial Center
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COVINGTON — Newton County honored late Superior Court Judge Horace J. Johnson Jr. on Friday by renaming the Judicial Center in his memory.

Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton gave the keynote address at the socially-distanced event, recalling that the building had already been dedicated in 2018 by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Friday’s ceremony, Melton said, took that dedication one step further.

Melton said a hallmark of Johnson’s character was that he always “made everybody feel like he was their closest friend, so there is a warmth and a sense of caring very closely associated with the hame of Horace J. Johnson Jr.”

Johnson’s engaging smile was an outward sign of his attitude of caring and encouragement, Melton said.

“I believe that this building is already dedicated to doing justice, and that’s hard enough as it is,” said Melton. “Fairness to all. But we are taking a step even bigger by putting the name of Horace Johnson on this building. Even more is expected. My hope and prayer … is that in all cases of all types, in ways expected and ways unexpected, that people will walk into this building and feel a sense of warmth and caring; that this will be a transformational building … that this won’t be just a hall of justice; that this will be a hall of transformation, a hall of hope, a hall of healing, a hall of purpose, a hall of vision, a hall of families and a hall of smiles.”

Alcovy Circuit Chief Superior Court Judge John Ott welcomed Johnson’s family members and others to the ceremony, noting that family was vitally important to Johnson.

“You couldn’t be around Horace, as I was for over 25 years, without him letting you know that central to his life was his family,” said Ott. “The love of his life, Michelle, sister Yvette, James and Bryant. That dominated most of our conversations.”

Ott describe Johnson as a man who met everyone on equal footing, but a man would could be stern with the circumstances called for it.

“That’s why this occasion to me is so profound,” said Ott. “… by the dedication of this building… it imbues this building with an identity, a personality, if you want, of integrity, of fairness, of equal justice for any citizen who walks into this building.”

Johnson’s family members expressed their thanks for the renaming of the Judicial Center.

Michelle Johnson said there are four words to describe how her husband lived his life — persistent, insistent, intentional and love.

“He loved us as a family, he loved God, he loved representing Newton County, Walton County, his community, the state of Georgia, in any capacity that he served,” she said.

“We are hopeful, we are grateful and we are thankful for the honor bestowed upon this community with Horace’s name,” she added.

Johnson’s mother, Lottie Johnson, described her son as “a spirit.”

“In my mind’s eye, I can see Horace with his big grin stretched from one side of his face to the other, and this he always did when he approved of what was happening,” she said.

“He will always be remembered for what he has done; he will always be remembered from generation to generation, and we want to thank all of you for being here,” she added. “We love you from the depths of our hearts.”

The Newton County Board of Commissioners voted to rename the Newton County Judicial Center in honor of Judge Johnson shortly after Johnson’s death on July 1. Johnson served as a judge there for more than 17 years.

In addition to being a noted jurist, Johnson was a well-known servant in the community, serving in a variety of volunteer roles.

Johnson was recognized by the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce as the R.O. Arnold Award winner in 2017 and was named the Martin Luther King Jr. Trailblazer Award recipient in 2020. Johnson was also given the Frederick B. Kerr Service Award by Leadership Georgia in 2018, an organization he served as president in 2009.

Johnson served on a number of boards throughout Newton County, including the founding advisory board of the Boys and Girls Club, the Washington Street Community Center, United Bank of Covington, Board of Counselors at Oxford College and the founding board of Newton Mentoring Inc. He was also a member of the Kiwanis Club of Covington, serving as president in 2018-19, and helped Newton County veterans through the Veteran’s Accountability Court he started in 2016.

Johnson, who grew up in the Sand Hill community, attended Washington Street School and was among the first Black students to integrate Ficquett Elementary School. He then attended Cousins Middle School and graduated Newton High School, Oxford College, Emory University and the University of Georgia law school.

Rhonda Westbrook promoted to Deputy Director of Georgia Crime Information Center
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DECATUR — Conyers resident Rhonda Westbrook has been promoted to deputy director of the Georgia Crime Information Center (GCIC) by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Westbrook will be responsible for the development, maintenance and operation of GCIC. She will continue the mission of GCIC which is “To protect the citizens of Georgia by providing accurate and timely criminal justice information and related services. GCIC does this through employee, customer and stakeholder involvement, teamwork, planning and technology.”

Westbrook will serve as the state National Crime Prevention and Privacy Compact officer responsible for administering the compact within the state; ensuring compliance with compact provisions and rules, procedures and standards established by the compact council; and regulating the in-state use of records received from the FBI or other states party to the compact.

Westbrook began her career with the GBI in 1989 in the Criminal History Information Services where she was instrumental in the development, implementation and training the Superior Court clerks on the electronic submission of final disposition data to GCIC’s Computerized Criminal History (CCH) data base. She later transferred to the Plans and Program Development Unit where she served as a lead system analyst and then a project manager where she worked extensively on large and small systems development and implementation. She was also responsible for writing and managing many National Criminal History Improvements (NCHIP) grants along with Georgia Emergency Management Assistance (GEMA) grants that funded criminal history improvements projects.

In 2011, she became the CJIS Operations manager, where she was responsible for overseeing the daily system operations of the Georgia Sex Offender Registry, Protective Order Registry, On-Line Validation program, Uniform Crime Reporting, N-DEx, and NICS. During Westbrook’s leadership, the GBI received the FBI’s National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS) Certification.

Westbrook has served as a liaison and informational source between GBI and other state government and federal offices. In 2018, Westbrook was promoted to assistant deputy director of Information Services where she was responsible for criminal history and applicant services. She has been instrumental in the new Georgia Applicant Print Services (GAPS) upgrade roll-out and the Rap Back application.

Westbrook obtained her bachelor of science degree from Georgia College in Milledgeville, a master of business administration from Troy State University, a master in public administration – command college from Columbus State University, and a doctoral of Christian counseling and educations from Jacksonville Theological Seminary.

DA McGinley pushes back against effort to split Alcovy Judicial Circuit
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COVINGTON — An effort by some members of the Board of Commissioners to remove Newton County from the Alcovy Judicial Circuit has met with strong resistance from District Attorney Randy McGinley.

Three of the county’s commissioners, Demond Mason, Alana Sanders and J.C. Henderson — all Democrats — voted Feb. 2 to draft local legislation to remove Newton from the Alcovy Circuit, which currently also includes Walton County.

The county’s two Republican commissioners — Stan Edwards and Ronnie Cowan — attempted to table the measure for 60 days in order to gain a clearer understanding of the proposed legislation, the need for it and the impact it will have on the circuit. That effort failed along the same voting lines, with Mason, Sanders and Henderson opposed.

Edwards asked Chairman Marcello Banes to explain the need for the proposed legislation.

“Our circuit is already overloaded,” said Banes. “Our county is well over 100,000 people; Walton County is over 100,000. Rockdale is not quite at 100,000 and they have their own circuit. … I think it is time for Newton County to have its own circuit.”

Despite Banes’ explanation, Edwards hinted the motivation was more political than practical. “I know exactly what this is,” he said.

Newton County has seen a strong shift toward Democratic candidates in recent elections, while Walton remains mostly Republican. In the district attorney race, McGinley received 23,648 votes to Democrat Destiny Bryant’s 29,540 in Newton County. In Walton, however, McGinley carried the county by more than 75% of the vote and secured the election.

State Rep. Dave Belton, R-Buckhead, who represents the eastern portion of Newton County, said it is unlikely the legislative delegation will introduce the bill this session.

“Typically we do not take up local legislation unless (the local vote) is at least 4-1,” said Belton. “We almost never take up 3-2 votes.”

In addition, Belton said the proposed legislation would be a general bill as opposed to a local bill.

“These can take five years or six years to do typically,” he said. “It’s not likely to happen very soon.”

In a statement issued Friday, McGinley said the effort to split the circuit came as a surprise to him and others who work in the judicial system.

“No one with the knowledge of the circuit’s court system was consulted before the vote,” said McGinley. “No one called me, the district attorney, who has worked in this circuit for about a decade and has more knowledge than anyone about the criminal caseload, the budget of the DA’s office, and how to keep our courts running fairly, effectively and efficiently. To my knowledge, no judges were consulted. To my knowledge, no one from the Department of Community Supervision, which handles probation supervision and is a circuit-wide office, was consulted.”

McGinley also said it appeared that bringing the legislative resolution before the Board of Commissioners was intentionally added to the commissioners’ agenda at the last minute.

“It appears that such last-minute additions to the agenda are allowed when the matter is urgent or time sensitive. However, not a single reason why this matter was urgent was discussed,” said McGinley. “Instead, a copy of the proposed bill was already attached to the proposal, which clearly indicates that this proposal was already in the works well before the day of the meeting. The late addition to the agenda precluded anyone with knowledge of the court system, the DA’s office, and the potential financial impact to appear at the meeting ready to discuss the matter.”

McGinley said splitting the circuit could have significant financial impacts on each of the counties as they currently share some resources, including staffing and software. McGinley said the loss in personnel and knowledge of cases would be impossible to calculate.

“To be clear, I was elected to be the district attorney of the Alcovy Judicial Circuit. Not just Newton County, not just Walton County, but the entire circuit,”said McGinley. “I have worked in both offices for years and both counties will always have a special place in my heart. I hope all elected officials believe what I believe: that I serve the people of my circuit. They do not serve me. I do not serve only those that voted for me. I serve everyone in the circuit.”