Judge candidates answer questions: Part 2
Published 3:00 pm Monday, May 2, 2016
By BETH ALSTON
AMERICUS — The Southwest Georgia Judicial Circuit Bar Association recently hosted three public forums so citizens could meet and hear from the three candidates for the Superior Court judge’s seat being vacated by Judge George Peagler, who is retiring at the end of 2016. The candidates are Jimmie Brown of Lee County, Kevin Kwashnak of Americus, and Lewis Lamb of Lee County. All three are attorneys.
The forum in Americus was moderated by local attorney Justin Arnold.
Following an introduction period, questions were taken from the audience.
Q. What alternative sentencing programs do you believe would be useful?
Kevin Kwashnak: “Right now, we do have Judge [James] Sizemore’s Drug Court program here in Sumter County. It covers most of the counties in the circuit. We also have the Day Reporting Center, a drug monitoring/drug treatment program down in Lee County. … Most of the others are affiliated with these two programs. I believe these are two good, important programs.
“One thing I would like to see is something that is used in other circuits — a mental health court. We have several people that have mental health issues that need monitoring, that need to be supervised. I’ve represented several clients who are continually coming back and back and back because they’re getting the help that’s necessary and they’re getting on their medications, but when they leave they stop taking their medication, and that’s when they start to get in trouble again. What I believe we could use is a mental health court to keep people monitored and keep them with the assistance they need.
“ … Other than that I believe we have several pre-trial programs with the misdemeanor court, or the misdemeanor probation. We have several pre-trial courts that handle issues before they become permanent problems. I believe that what we’ve got currently could be expanded, but I think a lot of it is working.”
Lewis Lamb: “As Mr. Kwashnak said … and as I mentioned in opening, we do have pre-trial diversion programs and first offender programs. We have treatment programs, etc. But there are some folks who we can’t help, that we try our best to help. We provide them with all those opportunities and there are some people we can’t help. … That is not a court system problem. It’s bigger than the court system and we do our best to get them to use those programs and to facilitate those programs and to encourage the use of those programs. At the same time, one of the things I think is necessary for someone who is sitting as a judge is to be able to filter through and say … ‘This person I think I can help. That person, I don’t have a program for that person.’ They have to be sentenced and have to be turned over to the Department of Corrections for their punishment and their rehabilitation and that sort of thing, and knowing when and where … Nobody’s going to get it right all the time. There are folks as a prosecutor that I’ve referred to drug programs, and lo and behold, six months later they’re back in the courtroom with a different charge. But sometimes you get it right.”
Jimmie Brown: “I won’t reiterate what the other two said, but I’ll just tell you what I’d like to look at possibly doing differently. In addition to what Kevin and Lewis have already talked about. … Let’s talk about the young offenders. You have first offender treatment… I think that community service goes hand in hand with that. You can’t just say ‘keep your nose clean for six months and you’re off.’ One of the challenges in our circuit, because we are a poor circuit, is that we don’t have the funding in the sheriff’s office or the probation office to put as many on community service as we would like to.
“But I don’t think there’s any kind of problem that can’t be solved somehow. I think that involving nonprofits, churches … We’ve got resources here that, for the lighter cases, not for the serious drug cases, you could give them an opportunity to go to a nonprofit and do work. I can counsel some young kid until I’m blue in the face and won’t get through his thick skull, but if he goes and cleans some widow’s yard and … I’ve given him a year probation and that pastor comes and says ‘he showed up when he was supposed to and he really had a change of heart,’ in a sentencing review, I can reduce the sentence and maybe for the first time that kid has now got someone whose gone to bat for him, and he sees it as doing the right thing could actually pay off. It also empowers the local leaders where they can come in and have a voice in court and that’s why having a drug policy that includes the community … You can’t elect a judge and expect him to clean up the streets; that’s not how it works. But if you involve the community, I’m convinced the more you involve them, I think, the more effective things can be. I think you can touch some of these lives but you’re not going to save every one of them. Some of them, they’re going to be back in court, and when they’re back as a repeat offender, you can deal with them appropriately. That’s what I would do different.”
Another question dealt with the types of work the three candidates had been involved in.
Q. As far as jury trial experience, what was the last case you tried and also where, in Sumter County, in Southwest Georgia and beyond that?
Lamb: “Over the last 10 years, with the Public Defender’s Office and at the D.A.’s office … I’ve had approximately 40 trials in this circuit, most of them have been in Sumter and Lee County. I’ve tried murder cases in Macon County, Sumter County and Lee County. The last case that I tried was in Lee County. It was a 19-, now 21-year-old man who raped a 13-year-old girl and he is serving a sentence of 80 years, the first 50 I think in a penitentiary. He pled guilty the morning after we had picked a jury and as the trial was about to start. The case I tried before that was a murder case where a man murdered, stabbed about 80 times, an 80-year-old man from Smithville, to rob him. He’s also serving a life sentence. I’m proud of what I’ve done in terms of my trial experience. As a prosecutor, I’ve obtained a guilty verdict in every murder case I’ve tried. I have obtained a guilty verdict in every case I’ve tried as prosecutor, except for one. I’m proud of that. I’m more proud, I think, of the fact that not all those cases have to go to trial because if people know you’re willing to go to try a case and they know you’re prepared to try a case, cases more often than not get resolved without trials, which of course is a benefit to the community and to the counties and the taxpayers in those counties.”
Brown: “As I said earlier, I’ve practiced law pretty much across the state. The last jury trial I had was a little less than a year ago in Cumming, Georgia, in Forsyth County. I represented the local CEO of the United Way in Albany in a case up there. We got a verdict after a two-day trial. We’ve all tried cases in front of juries. Early in my practice I was probably trying eight to 10 cases a year; that has dwindled down over time to about one a year, if that, because I’m basically doing civil cases at the current time. A trend in civil cases … has been towards mediating cases. I’m also a Certified Civil Mediator. I’ve been real active in the last three years mediating cases, both as a lawyer representing a client and also as a mediator where I’ve been hired by lawyers who bring their difficult cases for me to resolve. I love the problem-solving aspect of doing mediation. I’m a big believer in alternative dispute resolution that saves a lot of expense of jury trials.
“ … Early in my career I did criminal work and I’ve also done quite a number of domestic cases which is probably the largest single category that Superior Court handles, divorce and child custody and child support cases. I’ve jury tried divorces … everything connected to child support cases and child custody cases. Child custody is not decided by juries. I’ve handled all aspects of domestic cases as well as criminal … I’ve pretty much had a varied practice, everything except bankruptcy and real estate.”
Kwashnak: “I’ve handled about 30 to 35 criminal trials … but it’s all been in the Southwestern Circuit. I tried cases in Sumter County, in Lee County, in Stewart County, and I believe I did one in Macon County … I’ve handled trials in both the Superior Court and the State Court of Sumter County. When I first started with the Public Defender’s Office we were also handling the State Court and I was the one handling all the cases with the prosecutor, Mr. [Howard] McKelvey. … The last case I actually tried … They start to run together after awhile … I have been able to do effectively in a lot of cases; in some cases it’s just taking a case to trial. I’ve lost cases. I’ve won cases. I’ve lost cases I should have won and I’ve won cases I should have lost … Any other attorney will tell you the first rule is you never know what a jury is going to do. Practicing and doing the trial work is important and is valuable. … The last full trial I had … December of last year. I’m prepared to handle most of my cases as trials as needed. Sometimes that works to my client’s benefit also.”
Read more next time, in Part 3.