When an old Sandy Springs office tower crashed down during a March 31 demolition, it took a little bit of legal history with it.

The 1960s tower at 6075-6077 Roswell Road originally housed a branch bank that played a role in one of two unrelated Sandy Springs legal battles to go to the U.S. Supreme Court, both decided in 1975.

One case untangled obscure Georgia banking laws. The other was a horrific rape case, the news coverage of which sparked controversy that resulted in a landmark First Amendment decision.

The bank

Part of the office tower at 6075-6077 Roswell Road collapses during the March 31 demolition. (Dyana Bagby)

Now a pile of rubble on the site of a future mixed-use development, the Roswell Road tower was originally anchored by the Citizens & Southern Bank of Sandy Springs, founded in 1959. The C&S operated as a branch of the main downtown Atlanta bank, with a helicopter regularly landing on the roof to pick up cash deposits, according to Heritage Sandy Springs.

But branch banks outside the mother bank’s hometown city were illegal under Georgia anti-trust laws at the time. The Sandy Springs location was among several C&S created under a legal loophole. When a 1970 law change allowed county-wide banking systems, C&S attempted to make those branches official. The feds ended up stepping in, calling that an anti-trust violation, and the bank fought to the Supreme Court.

In U.S. v. Citizens & Southern National Bank, the court ruled that C&S’s branches were A-OK, and specifically cited the Sandy Springs branch as immune to legal challenge. After several  corporate mergers, the branch survives today as a Bank of America, which left the doomed tower last year for a new building next door.

The crime

The death of 17-year-old Sandy Springs high-school student Cynthia Cohn on a summer night in 1971 at first appeared to be a tragic case of alcohol poisoning. Months later, officials revealed that she was the victim of a gang rape and possibly murdered, and charged six local high school students.

During coverage of their 1972 trial, a WSB-TV reporter revealed Cohn’s name, against standard journalistic practice of withhold sexual assault victims’ identities, sparking a precedent-setting lawsuit that pitted the right to privacy against freedom of the press.

John Nuckolls, the Fulton County prosecutor on the case, said it still haunts him — especially the relatively light sentences he agreed to for the five teens who pleaded guilty to rape or attempted rape. Stephen Land, the attorney who argued for the Cohn family against WSB’s parent company Cox before the Supreme Court, agreed it was a disturbing crime.

“Cindy Cohn,” Nuckolls said with a deep sigh when asked about the crime. “It was just a dreadful case from every aspect … It was a bad, bad case.”

“It was a terrible tragedy,” said Land. “It was a bad case all around, one of those cases you just hate.”

According to media reports and Nuckolls, Cohn lived on River North Drive and was among the first employees of the International House of Pancakes that still operates on Roswell Road. On Aug. 18, 1971, she drank heavily at a party on Lake Island Drive and was attacked by a group of male high-schoolers, at least three of whom raped her. As she suffocated on her own vomit, some of her attackers drove to her home and left her on the ground outside.

“They had rang the doorbell and ran. They didn’t have the courage to take her to the hospital,” Nuckolls said.

After a skeptical medical examiner discovered vegetation inside Cohn’s clothing, police and prosecutors began investigating the case as a homicide. The community was stunned when Nuckolls charged the six teens, initially with rape and murder.

“Sandy Springs was … just a little idyllic community where there was no crime,” he recalled. “It was front-page headlines.”

Nuckolls soon dropped the murder charges and gained guilty pleas for the rape. The longest prison sentence, according to media reports, was seven years with four to be served and the rest on probation; the shortest was two years of probation with no prison time. Nuckolls, who had agreed to five-year sentence recommendations, said he has regretted the relatively short sentences, especially after having a daughter of his own.

“It always bothered me in years since,” he said. “I always kicked myself over the leniency that I showed those boys … In today’s society, they would have ended up with a life sentence.”

Another regret is how he convinced Cynthia’s father, Martin Cohn, to cooperate with the prosecution. He said the family struggled to accept that such a crime could happen to their daughter and feared her memory would be stained by a trial. Nuckolls assured them that Cynthia’s name would remain unpublished, not only because of journalistic ethics, but because Georgia then had a law criminalizing the publication of the name of a sexual assault victim.

But during the trial on April 10, 1972, a clerk gave a WSB reporter, the late Tom Wassell, court documents showing Cynthia Cohn’s name, which he then reported from a broadcast on the courthouse steps. According to some media reports, the family was then subjected to ridicule and insults, and graffiti reading, “Free the Sandy Springs Six.”

Nuckolls said that Martin Cohn “felt we led him down the primrose path and cut him off at the knees.” The District Attorney’s office considered prosecuting Wassell under the law, he said, but it became clear that Cohn wanted to sue WSB and Cox instead for invasion of privacy.

That’s where Land came in. He said he believes Wassell’s publicizing of Cynthia’s name was “unintentional … I think he was sorry he did it.” But Martin Cohn “went berserk” over it. As a 40-year-old attorney facing a team of high-powered Cox lawyers, Land still liked his odds — at first.

“I think a jury would’ve burned up Cox,” he said. But instead, Cox sought to have the suit thrown out on the basis of the First Amendment right to publish anything in a legally obtained public record. Its appeals moved up the ladder quickly, with the Supreme Court accepting the case in 1974.

“When I saw that [Supreme Court acceptance], I said, ‘I’m gonna get beat,’” Land recalled. “I didn’t have any illusions about how that case was going to come out. It just reeked [of the] First Amendment.”

Indeed, Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn was a landmark ruling in Cox’s favor. Still studied in media law and ethics classes today, its basic message is that publishing factual material from a public record, even if it is considered bad judgment, cannot be made a crime or a civil liability.

“That was a hell of a thing … pretty intimidating,” Land said of delivering oral arguments before the Supreme Court. He recalled that Cox’s lead attorney, the late Kirk McAlpin, had similar feelings as they sat in a waiting room together before the arguments.

“He said, ‘I don’t mind telling you, I’m scared to death.’”

Land, who later became a Sandy Springs city solicitor and now a divorce-mediation specialist, said he’s still not happy with the court’s ruling.

“It was a free speech issue, so called,” he said, adding that victim privacy is now left to, “God, I hate to say it, common decency — [the] little bit left.”

But it was the privacy lawsuit that, ironically, resulted in Cynthia Cohn’s name being permanently published in a major Supreme Court ruling.

“Yep,” said Nuckolls, the former prosecutor. “After I sat there and looked the father in the eye and said, ‘Her name will never get out there.’”

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.

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