COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) — Thursday, a federal judge issued a pointed ruling on the civil litigation in the Hector Arreola wrongful death case that could impact potential criminal charges in Superior Court.
U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land, in a late-afternoon ruling, denied a stay request by attorneys for Columbus Police Officers, who are defendants in the case.
Lawyers for Officer Michael Aguilar, Officer Brian Dudley, and Officer Aaron Evrard were asking for a postponement because of the possibility of criminal charges. Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit District Attorney Mark Jones has appointed private attorney Chris Breault as a special prosecutor. They plan to present the case to a Grand Jury.
Attorney for the Arreola family, Mark Post, filed a response to the defendants renewed emergency motion for a stay on Tuesday June 9. This motion to stay is the second one the defense has filed in the case. The first motion to stay came after Jones initial commented that he would take the case to a grand jury in Feb. 2021. It is now the second time their motion to stay has been denied.
“Although no criminal charges have been pursued in the almost four and a half years since the incident in question, those comments indicate that he has appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the matter and consider presenting it to a grand jury,” Land wrote. “But the facts underlying this action and the expiration of the statute of limitations on all charges except murder strongly militate against criminal charges ever being made.”
Land questioned the validity of murder charges being brought against the officers.
“And quite frankly, the evidence in the present record, which is relatively complete, indicates that a charge for murder could not be sustained in good faith under Georgia law,” Land wrote. “To be convicted of murder under Georgia law, a jury must be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that (1) the defendant ‘unlawfully and with malice aforethought, either express or implied, cause[d] the death of another human being’ or that (2) the defendant ‘in the commission of a felony . . . cause[d] the death of another human being irrespective of malice.”
Land did not stop there.
“Although a theoretical argument based upon a strained view of the evidence could be made that some evidence exists to support a charge, any reasonable prosecutor would ultimately conclude that the state could not carry its burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” Land wrote. “Accordingly, it is unlikely that Defendants will ever face a criminal prosecution for murder. Since that is the only possible charge that could be made at this late date, their criminal exposure is remote.”
District Attorney Mark Jones issued comment Thursday night, following the order from Judge Land.
“We need to present it to the people and let them weigh in, I felt like. It’s good to have a judge’s comment you know and, I thank him for weighing in. He’s obviously trying to help also on the civil case if you look at it from that perspective,” said Jones.
Jones continued, “A stay would delay justice for the family in the civil context. So he may be trying to help, but in doing so he did comment upon, you know the state case, which he’s not the judge of. So that’s kind of unusual.”
Jones says he respects the judge’s ruling, but the case should be heard by a grand jury.
“Appreciate him weighing in, but respectfully, humbly disagree. I think a prosecutor could in good faith and indeed must, present something like this at least to the grand jury to see what they think. And if they don’t like it or think it doesn’t qualify under Georgia law, then let you know them say it.”
Attorney Jim Clark agreed with Land’s ultimate conclusion.
“While we were hopeful the Court would stay the case given the surprising announcement of the District Attorney several years after the incident, we agree with the Court that there is no good faith basis for presenting this case to a grand jury,” Clark said in a prepared statement.
Attorney for the Arreola family, Mark Post, issued the following statement: “We are very pleased with the ruling and we look forward to presenting our case to a jury August 9th.”
READ THE FULL ORDER FROM JUDGE LAND: