A Crack In The Courthouse Marble
When Christian Eppinger - accused of shooting an Atlanta cop six times - got bond yesterday, leaders hit the roof. The process is cracked. But it isn't quite broken.
The video played for the assembled press corps this morning of a cop getting shot was grim. It’s been a day for grim videos, frankly.
Police described the scene as Officer David Rodgers got out of a police car in front of the Colonial Square Apartments. That’s Young Slime Life gang turf. Eppinger was on the sidewalk, and the subject of an arrest warrant for an armed robbery.
In the video, Eppinger pushes Rodgers back as the officer attempts the arrest, draws a gun and shoots the cop in the head from about five feet away. Rodgers tumbles like a chopped tree into the grass. Eppinger shoots him five more times and then takes off running. Rodgers’ partner gets out of the car in the street and apparently opens fire, while other drivers take off.
“God was with him that day,” APD Chief Rodney Bryant said at a press conference Wednesday at the Fulton County Courthouse. “He stays very positive in every communication that I have with him.”
Yesterday, a sort-of judge gave Eppinger a sort-of bond to sort of get out of jail, despite very evidently shooting Officer David Rogers. And folks freaked.
Judge Alexandra Manning isn’t an elected judge. She’s an appointed “judicial officer” by the Fulton County Superior Court in a program to help the court clear the massive case backlog accumulated during the pandemic. The program uses American Rescue Plan money to hire retired judges and other attorneys temporarily to hear bond cases.
By law, the state is required to indict a defendant within 90 days. If it doesn’t, that defendant must be offered a bond, regardless of the underlying charges or the perceived danger.
Eppinger has only been in jail for 72 days. But the next hearing date would have been after the 90-day mark, so Manning gave him a $300,000+ bond with conditions.
“I think this is just a problem with our process,” Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis said. “I think the judge had some concerns that [Eppinger] would hit his 90 days, and then legally he would not have a bond. But that's the process over common sense. What should have happened is it should have been sat down for 19 days.”
Eppinger isn’t actually going anywhere except prison, despite an Instagram post celebrating bond and wondering if he would be getting out of jail. He’s in violation of his probation for a shooting when he was 17, which will allow a judge next week to revoke his freedom and impose the rest of a decades-long sentence he pleaded guilty to four years ago.
On that basis alone, the bond hearing probably should have been set aside.
But the DA’s office still had to explain to a judge why they hadn’t indicted Eppinger by now, and that runs into the other complexity around this case. Eppinger isn’t just charged with trying to kill a cop. He’s being charged under the state’s gang racketeering laws. And — as I discovered after talking at length with a ranking expert on those laws — building a gang case that will stand up in court is exceptionally difficult. Police are not particularly well trained in gathering evidence to prove gang affiliations or that a given crime is actually a gang crime.
A gang case against YSL could be tough. YSL is also the incorporated music label for the rappers Young Thug and Gunna, who presumably have millions of dollars ready to fight criminal charges — never mind a jury pool which might be skeptical in the face of celebrity.
But evidence from the attempted murder is copious: body-worn cameras, surveillance cameras, witness testimony, ballistics, and more. Eppinger’s rash decision to go down fighting rather than submit to arrest may have inadvertently given prosecutors a gift: the means to convict everyone in YSL on a gang charge.
Evidentiary hearings on gang cases are complicated. Because they’ve charged Eppinger under the gang statute, the state has to prove that Eppinger was a member of YSL, that YSL is a criminal street gang, and that the attempted murder was in furtherance of the goals of the gang. Georgia law allows all that evidence to be used in the trials of all the other alleged gang members charged under the same statute.
Eppinger rapped under the moniker “Bad Bhris” as a YSL rapper.
I note in passing that the district attorney’s office said in their emergency filing for a stay of the bond order that Eppinger continues to be in communication with other gang members. They’re plainly monitoring his Instagram account. Every day he’s in prison appears to make their job of proving he’s a gang member a little easier.
Nonetheless, that process takes time and labor to investigate. The Eppinger case had 90 days on the clock. Willis apparently wanted to give the police as many of those days as possible to build the case. Only, a night court judge didn’t get the memo … because if an assistant district attorney explained in court exactly what investigators had been doing, it would have potentially tipped off the rest of the gang about how screwed they were.
When I asked why Eppinger hadn’t been indicted yet, Willis answered, “We're making sure that we collect all the evidence that needs to be listened to, that needs to be looked at. We're looking into social media. When we bring down an indictment, that it will be an indictment that is complete and hold him and others responsible for all of their actions.”
I asked Willis if the Eppinger case is tied to the large gang case she mentioned a few weeks ago, that would emerge at the end of April. “I ask you to wait. Time will tell.” I then asked directly if she anticipated indicting Young Thug, Gunna, Unfoonk and other YSL members.
“I anticipate indicting anyone who commits an act of violence within my community,” she replied. “I anticipate doing it within 90 days. And I am not impressed with the fact that you are a rapper, that's not going to keep you from being indicted by this office. And if they've committed acts of violence, and if we have enough evidence to substantiate that, you're going to see indictments.”
The assembled prosecutors and police officers behind her meticulously avoided making eye contact with me as I asked that. I smirked.
“It is an unfortunate reality that we have some people that choose to use their fame to promote gangs,” she added, describing the connection between Atlanta’s music industry and gang violence. “We have some people that are rappers, some of which you have named, that are doing acts of violence. And if they do it within this county, they're going to find themselves indicted, and eventually convicted.”
When I first heard that a judge had given Eppinger a bond, I was outraged. I am, frankly, still a little outraged. Not just for the basic horror of it, but for how the public would predictably react to the news: calls for heads to roll, and a deepening of skepticism about the judicial process in Fulton County … and of the all the principles that provide for bonds under other conditions where mercy and common sense should prevail. I’m not talking about Eppinger here; I’m talking about some other nameless fool who probably does merit an ankle monitor and a chance at a return to a productive life, whose plea for mercy would be drowned in cynical cries for revenge.
Bond for Eppinger makes justice harder to find for others.