ATLANTA (AP) — Nearly five dozen people indicted on racketeering charges related to protests against a planned police and firefighter training facility near Atlanta appeared in court on Monday as their supporters rallied outside the courthouse.
Protests against the proposed training center — dubbed “Cop City by opponents — have been going on for more than two years. Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr obtained a sweeping indictment in August, using the state's anti-racketeering law to target the protesters and characterizing them as ”militant anarchists."
Demonstrators and civil rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have condemned the indictment and accused Carr, a Republican, of levying heavy-handed charges to try to silence a movement that has galvanized environmentalists and anti-police protesters across the country.
All 61 people indicted were scheduled to be arraigned Monday, that is to have the charges against them formally read in court. Fifty-seven of them appeared, called in small groups before Fulton County Superior Court Judge Kimberly Esmond Adams over a three-hour period, and each waived arraignment.
Four defendants failed to appear. One was believed to be in France and prosecutors didn't have a good address for him. One was in federal immigration custody. Another who is not American and who had left the country tried to return twice in recent days to attend the hearing but was denied entry to the country, her lawyer said. A fourth simply didn't show.
Most of the people who appeared had not yet surrendered at the Fulton County Jail to be booked on their charges. Some had recently reached agreements with prosecutors on a bond amount and conditions and others were still in the process of doing so.
Adams told them they had until 10 a.m. Tuesday, 24 hours after the start of the arraignment proceedings, to turn themselves in. If they fail to do so, she warned, a warrant for their arrest could be issued and any bond would be rescinded.
Adams instructed defense attorneys to provide the attorney general's office with hard drives by Friday so they can receive copies of evidence in the case, known as discovery. Prosecutors are to finish copying and distributing that evidence to defense attorneys by the end of the year.
A final plea hearing will be set no later than the end of June, Adams said. She explained to the groups of defendants that if they want to reach a plea agreement with prosecutors they must do it by that date.
A couple of hundred supporters of the “Stop Cop City” effort rallied outside the courthouse in downtown Atlanta on Monday morning singing, chanting and waving signs.
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and other supporters say the 85-acre, $90 million facility would replace inadequate training facilities, and would help address difficulties in hiring and retaining police officers. Opponents have expressed concern that that it could lead to greater police militarization and that its construction in the South River Forest will worsen environmental damage in a poor, majority-Black area.
Protests against the project, which have at time resulted in violence and vandalism, escalated after the fatal shooting in January of 26-year-old protester Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, known as Tortuguita. A prosecutor last month said he would not pursue charges against the state troopers who shot Paez Terán, saying he found that their use of deadly force was “objectively reasonable.”
Most of those indicted in August had already been charged over their alleged involvement in the movement. RICO charges carry a sentence of five to 20 years in prison that can be added on top of the penalty for the underlying acts.
Among the defendants: more than three dozen people who were previously facing domestic terrorism charges in connection to the protests; three leaders of a bail fund previously accused of money laundering; and three activists previously charged with felony intimidation after authorities said they distributed flyers calling a state trooper a “murderer” for his involvement in Paez Terán's death.
Prosecutors have alleged a conspiracy that includes a wide variety of underlying crimes that range from possessing fire accelerant and throwing Molotov cocktails at police officers to being reimbursed for glue and food for activists who spent months camping in the woods near the construction site.
Associated Press photographer Mike Stewart contributed reporting.