DA turns down plea on video, will be tried on felony charges

September 4, 2021 GMT

COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) — A Georgia district attorney remains headed to trial later this month on felony charges related to a campaign video even as three codefendants pleaded guilty Friday to misdemeanors.

Mark Jones, the district attorney for Muscogee and five surrounding counties, is charged with first-degree criminal damage, interfering with government property and conspiracy in connection with a May 2020 video for his election campaign. The video included stunt driving moves such as cars driving in doughnuts with smoking tires in the parking lot of the Columbus Civic Center.

The Ledger-Enquirer of Columbus reported that Christopher Black, Chris Garner and Jonathan Justo-Botello pleaded guilty to criminal trespass and laying drag, a Georgia crime that covers a range of illegal stunt driving offenses.

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A judge Friday refused to throw out the indictment against Jones and ruled against claims that Jones is a victim of selective or malicious prosecution. The trial is set to begin Sept. 13. Jones refused a plea offer similar to the co-defendants, and would be removed from office if convicted of a felony.

“There’s been no evidence that there’s been any sort of misbehavior,” Bibb County Superior Court Judge Jeffery Monroe ruled in response to Jones’ claims that he had been indicted for political reasons after defeating the incumbent district attorney.

The men were sentenced to 12 months probation, ordered to pay $504 in restitution and a $500 fine and serve 20 hours of community service. The three men were also banned from the civic center, a complex that includes playing fields, a football stadium, an arena, an ice rink and sprawling parking lots.

A fourth co-defendant, Erik Whittington, did not appear in court Friday.

Defense attorney Christopher Breault called the charges against Jones a “fake case.” He said plenty of other drivers have done stunts in the parking lot but Jones and the other co-defendants were targeted because Jones was on a path to winning the Democratic nomination for district attorney over incumbent Julia Slater. With no Republican in the race, the Democratic nominee was assured of victory.

Breault also argued that damage to the parking lot was far less than the $300,000 cited by the city and that Jones didn’t directly ask the men to drive in doughnuts.

Witnesses called by Breault said Slater had nothing to do with Jones’ indictment, which was handled by a special prosecutor. Former Columbus Police Chief Ricky Boren said car enthusiasts have been allowed to use the parking lot, but that didn’t mean they were allowed to “damage the facility.” When events like this happened previously, Boren said officers would ask drivers to disperse and criminally charge them if damage occurred.

“Any damage to public property is a felony in the state of Georgia,” Boren said.

Garner and Justo-Botello testified that Jones did not direct them to cut doughnuts in the Civic Center parking lot for the campaign video, but added during cross-examination that Jones did not attempt to stop them from burning rubber.

Beyond Muscogee County, the circuit includes Harris, Chattahoochee, Marion, Talbot, and Taylor counties.

Breault said Jones refused the plea deal because “he believes it would be a bad example to other folks who are innocent to plead guilty to things like this.”