District Attorney David Cooke looks back on one year in office

awomack@macon.comJanuary 15, 2014 

When David Cooke took office as Macon Judicial Circuit district attorney last January, he wanted to make a difference.

Being the circuit’s top prosecutor was a dream many years in the making and it had finally come true.

After defeating two-year incumbent Greg Winters, Cooke became the first district attorney in more than a century to take office without previously working as a prosecutor in the circuit. Cooke was a Houston County prosecutor when he ran for office.

A year later, Cooke said being district attorney has been everything he had hoped.

“I absolutely love it,” he said a recent afternoon while sitting behind his desk a couple floors above the Grand Opera House in downtown Macon.

“It’s a good thing to try a murder case and win it. It’s a good thing to put away a gang member,” Cooke said. “It’s another thing to effect change for an entire community.”

During the course of 2013, Cooke put his touch on the district attorney’s office, creating what he calls a “machine” that’s brought about more efficient prosecutions.

The number of jury trials in the circuit increased from 11 in 2012 to 26 in 2013, Cooke said. The circuit comprises Bibb, Crawford and Peach counties.

Cases handled by the office -- whether resolved by trial, plea, dismissal or other reason -- increased by more than 20 percent, according to the office’s preliminary statistics.

“Efficiency in prosecution translates to less murders, more bad guys who hurt people in prison and less people out there to threaten us,” Cooke said. “I think it will mean a better quality of life for the Macon circuit.”

Bibb County Sheriff David Davis said prosecutors clearing cases off the court docket has helped reduce the number of people awaiting trial in the county jail, creating room for other inmates.

“He’s done a great job with that,” Davis said.

The jail, which in recent years has surpassed its capacity at times, isn’t in imminent need of expansion because of a smaller inmate population, he said.

Capital murder cases

Among the cases that passed through the courts during Cooke’s first year are two capital murder cases in which defendants have accepted plea bargains, avoiding possible death sentences.

In Cooke’s first weeks in office, Jomekia Pope pleaded guilty to murder in the 2005 death of LaTosha Taylor. Taylor died weeks after being doused with gasoline and set on fire.

This past fall, three people charged with murder in the 2012 embezzlement scheme and slaying of legal secretary Gail Spencer accepted plea bargains. Two of them, Michael Brett Kelly and Tracy Jones, had been facing possible death sentences first sought under Cooke’s administration.

Cooke also removed the death penalty as a possible punishment in the upcoming trial of Stephen McDaniel. McDaniel is accused in the 2011 dismemberment slaying of his Mercer University classmate and neighbor Lauren Giddings. His trial is expected to be held later this year.

Asked how he determines when to seek the death penalty as a possible sentence, Cooke said his decision is based on experience, best practices, conversations with victims’ family members and “the interest of justice.”

“I believe that in the most heinous cases, the death penalty warrants consideration,” he said.

But, in some cases, it makes sense to seek a sentence of life without the possibility of parole if a person will show true remorse, he said.

In McDaniel’s case, Cooke said the case was already a year-and-a-half old when he took office and “it really hadn’t gone anywhere.”

By removing the death penalty, a trial date was set, paving the way for the FBI to more quickly return test results needed for the trial, he said.

During his first year in office, Cooke also expanded the office’s victim and witness program, adding an additional staffer.

Statistics show the district attorney’s office made more than triple the number of contacts with victims in 2013 than the previous year and more than doubled the number of services provided -- such as helping victims receive restitution or counseling.

Early intervention program

Partnering with public defender Lee Robinson, Cooke has worked toward starting an early intervention program in Bibb County and to help establish an accountability court tailored to help veterans.

“He’s been a great partner,” Robinson said of Cooke. “I feel real good about our relationship and how we’re working.”

Although the county hasn’t funded the early intervention program, Robinson said there are plans to seek funding again during this year’s county budgeting process.

It’s a part of the job for defense attorneys and prosecutors to fight on different sides, but public defenders and prosecutors have maintained a good relationship under Cooke’s administration, Robinson said.

Cooke requested the GBI’s help in conducting independent investigations for two high profile cases in 2013 -- the fatal officer-involved shooting of a man outside a Macon Kroger in December 2012 and allegations state Sen. David Lucas choked a teenager at a campaign event for his wife, then-Macon City Councilwoman Elaine Lucas.

“I think whenever there’s a case where someone may say there’s a bias or some sort of outside influence or ‘who’s policing the police,’ we need to bring in a third party,” Cooke said.

No charges were pursued in either case.

In other unrelated cases, prosecutors have obtained convictions for police officers and a sitting magistrate accused of theft.

“It doesn’t matter who you are, you will be held accountable,” he said.

A staff turnover accompanied Cooke’s first weeks in office. He made several new hires which he says increased not just the “quality” of the office, but also the diversity. “The office now looks more like Bibb County than when I started,” Cooke said.

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report.

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