COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) – Last Friday, District Attorney Mark Jones announced he would appoint a special prosecutor in a high-profile case involving three Columbus Police officers and the death of Hector Arreola, who died in police custody.
Hector Arreola died in Columbus Police custody in January 2017. After the Georgia Bureau of Investigations ruled the case a homicide in 2020 (News 3 previously reported the year as 2019, however the change was made in 2020), the Arreola family brought a civil case against three officers involved in the incident, seeking financial damages.
In February 2021, the local NAACP chapter announced then-newly-elected DA Mark Jones would seek criminal charges against the officers. That’s when defense attorneys for the three officers filed their first motion to stay the civil suit until after a grand jury proceeding.
That motion was not granted. The civil trial was set for June 7, and then pushed back to Aug. 9.
Last Friday, Jones announced he would appoint attorney Chris Breault as a special prosecutor to pursue criminal charges against the officers. Defense attorneys for the officers then filed an emergency motion to stay the case. Arreola family attorney Mark Post said the most recent motion, if granted, would only further delay the civil case.
“You can’t really tell how long a delay it would be because we don’t know when the case would be presented to a grand jury,” Post said. “You don’t know if a case would be presented to a grand jury. You just don’t know what a special prosecutors gonna do. He has a job to do. I presume he will do it, that he will do it ethically, that he will do it fairly, and that he’ll be fair to all parties, so I don’t know. And that’s the problem I just don’t know.”
During his campaign for district attorney, Jones said one of his goals was to hold police officers accountable. He said appointing Breault special prosecutor to help him take the case in front of a grand jury is part of that plan.
Jones said Breault’s experience as a trial attorney specializing in accident and injury law is part of the reason he appointed him.
“You know he’s familiar with presenting medical evidence,” Jones said. “And so this type of case, because it involves like a suffocation or a strangulation, whatever you want to call it, during the arrest, that’s going to be heavy intensive on medical records, medical evidence and it’s important that we have an attorney representing the community that understands those things and can present that evidence effectively.”
Breault has also served as Jones’s criminal defense attorney, representing Jones on multiple felony charges stemming from a DUI arrest and a campaign video shot at the Civic Center parking lot. At the time of the Jones’s arrest, Breault called the arrest an “election surprise” and linked the arrest with Jones’s Sept. 5, 2020 statement to USA Today that he would prosecute the officers involved in Arreola’s death.
At the time of the announcement, Rodrigo Arreola, Hector Arreola’s father, told News 3, “What we want, you know the end state, there’s accountability and there’s people held accountable and people are, you know, dealt with accordingly. If [Jones] feels hiring a special attorney will get the job done, then by all means we support that.”
After Jones announced Breault’s appointment, James C. Clark, a defense attorney for one of the officers, released a statement to WRBL, saying the three officers were “very disappointed to hear that our district attorney has chosen to assign a special prosecutor to consider criminal charges in this matter.”
“My client Officer Mike Aguilar, along with Officer Brian Dudley and Officer Aaron Evrard, are very disappointed to hear that our district attorney has chosen to assign a special prosecutor to consider criminal charges in this matter…” the statement reads in part.
The statement also reads in part: “...The officers involved with Mr. Arreola’s arrest showed professionalism and great restraint when faced with a very difficult situation. Mr. Arreola’s death, while tragic, was not the result of any actions taken by the Columbus Police Department officers but rather was the direct result of Mr. Arreola’s use of a lethal amount of methamphetamine coupled with resisting arrest and fighting with law-enforcement. As a result of his methamphetamine use and excited state created due to his struggle with law enforcement, Mr. Arreola unfortunately suffered a cardiac arrest and died subsequent to being placed into custody. The officers involved performed their duties flawlessly, utilizing an appropriate level of force to restrain Mr. Arreola and effectuate the arrest…”
Hector Arreola’s Father, Rodrigo Arreola said the defense’s use of the terms “professionalism” and “flawlessly” raised a counter question.
“I read the defense statement that he made last week and there’s two words there that stick out to me that, really impacting to me and one is the word professionalism and flawlessly,” said Arreola. “So my question back to the defense is if that is how the Hector situation was handled then I want to know why Hector’s death certificate doesn’t read that way.”
Hector Arreola’s death certificate lists Arreola’s death as a homicide and details the two immediate causes of death as quote “Cardiac Arrest and Struggle with Police.”
However, the certificate also cites Methamphetamine Use as a quote “significant condition contributing to death but not related to cause given in Part 1A.” The cause listed in 1A is sudden cardiac arrest.
The Arreola’s attorney Mark Post filed a response to the defendants renewed emergency motion for stay on June 8.