All eyes on Georgia DA Fredric Bright today as he decides on Ben Roethlisberger
'He will call it as he sees it'
April 12, 2010 8:00 AM
Ben Gray/Atlanta Journal-Constiution
File photo of Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit District Attorney Fredric Bright, who has been given the case involving Ben Roethlisberger and a college student accusing him of sexual assault.
By Dan Majors Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
MILLEDGEVILLE, Ga. -- Fredric D. Bright has seen this day coming for more than a month. The day when he would go before a throng of reporters and television cameras at the Baldwin County Courthouse and tell them -- and everyone waiting pensively in Steelers Nation -- whether he will file sexual assault charges against Ben Roethlisberger.
His news conference is scheduled for 2 p.m. today.
The spotlight may be intense, but people who know Mr. Bright say he will look into it without blinking. After nearly 30 years as a prosecutor, half of them as Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit district attorney, he has a reputation of a fair but fiercely determined champion of the law who has handled his share of high-profile cases.
"Fred will do what is right, regardless of the consequences," said Peter J. Skandalakis, the district attorney for the neighboring Coweta Judicial Circuit. "He will call it as he sees it. No politics, no cameras are going to influence him. When he makes up his mind, he will move in the right direction."
Mr. Roethlisberger stands accused of sexual assault by a 20-year-old woman, who told police he accosted her in a Milledgeville nightclub early March 5.
The Milledgeville Police Department and agents of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation collected evidence, reviewed videotapes and conducted numerous interviews. They finished their investigation last week and forwarded their findings to Mr. Bright, district attorney for the eight counties that comprise the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit.
Mr. Bright has several options. He can drop the case if he believes the evidence does not prove that a crime was committed. He can go before a grand jury in pursuit of felony charges of sexual assault, punishable by a mandatory minimum of 25 years in prison. Or he can file a misdemeanor charge of sexual battery, "the nonconsensual touching of a person's body in a sexual manner," and ask Mr. Roethlisberger to surrender to authorities.
Mr. Roethlisberger, through his Atlanta-based attorneys, has maintained that no crime was committed.
Throughout the investigation, Mr. Bright has declined to comment, including for this article. A spokesman with the Georgia attorney general's office said that state ethics rules and U.S. Department of Justice guidelines limit the public statements that prosecutors are allowed to make. But that doesn't keep some from going before the microphones.
"Fred Bright is known as being very conscientious. He doesn't seek publicity," said Page Pate, an Atlanta attorney who specializes in sexual offense cases.
Many describe Mr. Bright, 54, as "a career prosecutor" who has no ambitions for political office or a judge's chambers. A native of Baltimore, he graduated from Emory University in Atlanta in 1977 with a degree in history. He earned a law degree from the University of Georgia in Athens in 1981.
His wife, Cinda, a Georgia native, is clerk of Superior Court in Wilkinson County, where the couple have raised two sons: Jonathan, 22, a senior at Georgia Tech, and Jacob, 9, a fourth-grader.
Mr. Bright came to Milledgeville straight out of college and was hired as an assistant district attorney for the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit. In 1994, when the district attorney at the time stepped down, Mr. Bright was elected to the post. He has been re-elected every four years since without opposition, overseeing a department with 11 assistant district attorneys.
"He doesn't try many cases himself anymore. He's more of an administrator and doesn't personally get involved in trials," Mr. Pate said. "He's well-respected and his assistant DAs like working for him. He doesn't micromanage."
Not that his courtroom resume is lacking. Though his name might not be known outside of central Georgia, he has prosecuted a number of big cases.
In 2004, he prosecuted Dwight "Malachi" York, who was charged with more than 100 counts of child molestation at the religious compound he established in Putnam County. Mr. York was convicted and sentenced to 135 years in prison.
Mr. Bright has prosecuted 13 death-penalty cases and won convictions at trial in all of them. Eight of those convicted were sentenced to death and are on death row in Jackson, Ga. None of the cases has been reversed on appeal.
It was during one of those appeal hearings, involving the conviction of two men for the 1998 murder of a Jones County man and his two children, that Mr. Bright was asked why he did not offer the suspects a plea bargain.
According to published reports, Mr. Bright said he did make an offer: the death penalty. The crimes were so brutal, Mr. Bright said, that he was not interested in offering a lesser penalty.
"I vividly remember in the guilty-innocence portion of the trial, when the jury had been out five hours, the attorneys asked me about a manslaughter plea," Mr. Bright was quoted as saying in The Jones County News in Georgia. "My response was, 'Read my lips. I'm not even interested in offering life without parole.' "
Another case Mr. Bright prosecuted involved the 1995 death of Baldwin County sheriff's Deputy William Robinson IV, who was gunned down by a man suspected of armed robbery. After a jury convicted Robert Wayne Holsey of murder in 1997, Mr. Bright made an emotional argument that Mr. Holsey should be sentenced to death. He wept while asking jurors to show Mr. Holsey "as much mercy as he showed Will Robinson." Mr. Holsey is on death row.
"Fred is a good guy, a decent guy. He's tough, but fair," said Mr. Skandalakis, who has known Mr. Bright for more than 18 years. "He bends over backward to make sure that everybody gets due process in the courtroom. The defendant, as well as the victim. But he is a formidable opponent. He's a good trial attorney who does his homework."
Sitting in his office a few blocks from the courthouse, criminal defense attorney Milton Frederick Gardner Jr. said he has gone head-to-head with Mr. Bright in more than a dozen trials over the years.
"The problem with going up against Fred is that everybody likes him," Mr. Gardner said. "The jury likes him. Fred is a popular person, and if Fred wanted to get elected to something, I think Fred would have no trouble doing it. He's unusually likable and a charming person."
Mr. Gardner said Mr. Bright is willing to negotiate plea bargains when they are in the interest of justice. And when he does pursue a conviction, he doesn't leave room for second-guessing.
"He runs a clean trial," Mr. Gardner said, "in the sense that if somebody else says, 'Well, we could put this into evidence and get a conviction,' but it might get reversed on appeal, Fred will say, 'No, no. Let's stop and think about this. Do we really want this in as evidence if it might be reversed on appeal? Let's just leave this out.' A lot of other prosecutors just want to get that conviction and the publicity, and they worry about the appeal later."
The fact that Mr. Bright has remained in the background throughout the Roethlisberger investigation did not surprise Mr. Gardner.
"He doesn't make loose statements or say anything that isn't well thought out. He's very responsible," Mr. Gardner said. "He won't put everybody through a big show just to put on a big show.
"If he's got some kind of big problem with this situation, he'll just look the world right in the face and say, 'This is the problem we have here.' Or he may say, 'I'm going to be vilified for doing this, but this is the way it goes.' That's Fred."