COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) Last week, Governor Brian Kemp selected criminal defense attorney Stacey Jackson to be the new Chattahoochee Circuit District Attorney.

Acting DA Sheneka Terry was among those interviewed by the governor prior to the appointment.

Friday, Terry sat down for an exclusive interview with News 2 to talk about her tenure under disgraced DA Mark Jones, her faith, and lessons learned over the last 15 months.

Terry has strong faith and resolve. But she says the time as Jones’ chief assistant, testifying against him in a public corruption trial, then trying to hold the office together, have tested it all.

“One of the reasons I stepped up and took the position of chief is because someone had to do it,” she told News 3. “Someone had to stand in for the community. Someone had to fill that gap. For a long time, I absolutely questioned, ‘Why me?’ And I finally got that fulfillment from God, ‘Why not you?’”

Two weeks ago, Terry knew she was not going to be the new DA. She had already gotten a call from the governor’s office telling her so.

She still had to deliver a closing argument in a murder case she was clearly losing. The jury eventually found Tommie Mullins and Dover Coppins not guilty of the 2018 shooting death of Branden Denson.

Here’s part of what she told the jury.

“When I leave out of this courtroom, when I leave out of this Government Center at 5 o’clock, I am a daughter,” Terry said. “I’m a wife. I’m a mother of an eight-month-old and another one that I don’t know whether it’s a boy or girl yet. But, of another one. I’m an aunt of eight nieces and nephews. And all of them expect me to be a good person. And to act with integrity.”

That’s a word that Columbus Mayor Skip Henderson used to describe Terry.

“Sheneka is a woman of integrity,” Henderson said. “And she did the very best she could under the circumstances when she took that job as an interim.”

In January 2020, Jones was sworn in as DA on the strength of a savvy social media campaign and the promise of change.

He tabbed Terry, who had been in the office since 2017 as his chief assistant DA. She had been mentored by former DA Julia Slater. Terry was one of the few Slater holdovers that Jones kept around.

Terry remembers the feeling the day they were sworn in.

“That day was full of hope for me,” Terry said. “Mark had won by an overwhelming amount of the vote. Of course, I didn’t agree with everything he campaigned on. But for the most part I felt that the community trusted him. And that could turn over a new leaf for the DA’s office as far as the community wanting to be an active participant in these cases and wanting too come forward with the information that we needed.”

It didn’t take long for that hope to be dashed.

“Very quickly. Very quickly,” Terry said. “But, of course, I am a person who tries to see the best in everyone and wants the best for everyone. So, there were a lot of times that just from my legal experience and knowledge I tried to advise him. Tried to reach out to others to advise us. I tried to prevent as much of it as I could.”

Jones was indicted on public corruption in September. Convicted in November.

Terry became part of a GBI investigation in which Jones offered her a bonus or bounty for a murder conviction. It was one of the charges that he admitted to.

She has not seen Jones since the November day she testified against him. But she does have a message for her former boss.

THE FULL INTERVIEW BELOW

“That this one situation doesn’t define the rest of his life,” she said. “As you heard in my closing, you are so much more than just an attorney. And he’s a father, a husband, a son. There are so many other people that count on him to keep going and to do the right thing and make better choices. I don’t judge him. I don’t’ hold anything against him as a person. That’s not for me to judge him. And I just want him to move forward with the rest of his life in a positive direction.”

Sheriff Greg Countryman praised her efforts in filling the gap.

“She had to move and work with the tools she had,” Countryman said. “And I think she did a great job with it.”

Terry was appointed the Acting DA when Jones was indicted and has been in that role ever since. Chief Chattahoochee Superior Court Judge Gil McBride has watched it all play out.

“I think we are all in Mrs. Terry’s debt. She had to take office during some very tough circumstances,” McBride said. “I think they were unique circumstances. I have never seen or heard of an acting DA in Georgia having to take office following her predecessor’s plead to a felony.”

And it was a road less traveled.

“She had no road map. No work manual for being an acting DA as near as I know,” McBride said. “No office handbook. And she forged a path she did a good job forging. She stabilized the office immediately. She recognized that was a priority.”

Terry is preparing for the transition to Jackson taking the office. There has not been a date set for the swearing in. Because of Jackson’s criminal defense work, a number of cases in the DA’s office will have to be reassigned to conflict counsel because Jackson and the attorneys he supervises can not prosecute those cases,

“ … I know that even with the transition between Mr. Jackson and I, a lot of families are questioning the process,” Terry said. “They are questioning the length of time. They are questioning whether their families will ever get justice because we have started to explain the conflict process to them.” 

She has offered to work closely with Jackson in the transition.

“Absolutely, because I have a heart for the community, I want nothing but the best for Mr. Jackson,” she said. “I absolutely hope that he’s able to give these families and those who have been waiting over in the jail their day in court. It is one thing that I pushed for from the start of coming in as the chief. It is trying to get these cases resolved, trying to get the numbers in the jail lower because bond is meant to assure you return to court. It is not meant to serve as a punishment.” 

And she knows because of his eight years in the DA’s office in the early 2000s, Jackson is positioned well.

“I believe that Stacey is in a unique position to understand what this office needs and how to efficiently run this office,” she said. “Whereas, the former DA that I worked under had always been a criminal defense attorney and didn’t have the prosecutorial experience Mr. Jackson does.” 

Jackson told News 3, he is still evaluating staffing decisions.

She told News 3 she approached a tough job and difficult situation the way she approaches everything.

“You know in everything I do; I just hope God is saying, ‘Well done,'” she said. “And I think here given the circumstances, and the fact that there was no blueprint, my guidance was literally do what you can for the people. Do what’s best for the people.”

And this experience — as trying as it has been — has left her in a better place.

“Absolutely. This has been an experience that no school, I don’t believe any other office could provide. I mean my perseverance, my intelligence, just determination, everything has been tested since January of 2020.”