Content warning: this article includes mention of an assault on a minor.
A family has accused a DeKalb County judge of faking official correspondence in a case that involves a racially motivated assault on a 15-year-old girl.
On Aug. 9, plaintiffs in the DeKalb Superior Court case Jane Smith Et al v. Bell Fund V Perimeter LLC Et al. filed a motion to recuse Judge Tangela Barrie. The plaintiffs are the family of Mary Smith (a pseudonym), an African American girl who was the victim of a hate crime in 2017. According to court documents, Mary, who is using a pseudonym due to her age at the time of the incident, was 15 years old when she was attacked and sexually assaulted at Dunwoody’s Bell Perimeter Center Apartments while she was taking the trash to the chute on her floor.
Court documents from the plaintiffs – including a signed affidavit from Pete Simi, an expert in extremist groups and white supremacy – state that the perpetrator repeatedly used racial slurs during the attack. An assailant has not been caught.
The plaintiffs are alleging negligence against multiple defendants in the case; Bell Fund V Perimeter LLC and Bell Partners Inc., the owner and management company for the apartment complex; Steven Bell, the founder of Bell Partners; Brady Ellis, the assistant community manager for the apartment at the time; Nicole Jones, the community manager for the apartment at the time; Joshua Sanders, who is a Dunwoody police officer and was the courtesy officer at the apartment complex at the time; and security companies Orion Access Control, Inc. dba Royal Access and Controlled Access, Inc.
The complaint alleges that the defendants failed to secure the apartment complex effectively and allowed security equipment, such as locks, gates, and doors, to fall into disrepair. The complaint also alleges that Jones failed to call 911 and failed to save any surveillance footage of the incident.
The Dunwoody Police Department provided an initial incident report for the case, but would not provide 911 call audio, Chatcomm dispatch audio, or any video from dash or body cameras, citing that the case is still open.
A spokesperson for the DPD said the department has had no leads since 2017. Due to pending court proceedings, they declined to comment further and did not answer questions regarding if a detective is still working on the case.
“The Defendants are responsible for the horrific attack because their negligence, indifference, and blatant disregard for Plaintiff’s safety allowed it to happen,” reads an amended complaint submitted by the plaintiffs on Dec. 6, 2021. “These Defendants then re-victimized Plaintiff by failing to follow their own policies and procedures in the aftermath of this egregious hate crime.”
All defendants have filed responses to the amended complaint denying allegations of negligence or liability. No defendants lawyers responded to requests for comment.
The family is currently waiting to hear whether Barrie will be recused from the case following allegations that the court faked an email. The recusal motion involves Barrie’s former law clerk, Marissa Dunn who worked on the case and left the court in 2021 to work for Freeman Mathis & Gary (FMG). Two FMG attorneys, Sharon Horne and Sun Choy, represent defendant Joshua Sanders.
Choy is also representing Gregory McMichael in a civil case from Wanda Cooper-Jones, the mother of Ahmaud Arbery, according to PACER documents. McMichael is one of three white men who was convicted for killing Arbery, who was Black, while he was on a jog in 2020. At the time of Arbery’s murder and Mary’s attack, Georgia was one of a few states to not have a hate crime statute. The Georgia Legislature passed a hate crime bill in the wake of Arbery’s murder.
The plaintiffs initially filed a motion on July 6 to disqualify Horne and Choy as counsel, stating they had not been made aware of Dunn’s employment with FMG and that FMG did not respond to their questions about whether Dunn had been screened from the case.
The State Bar of Georgia states that lawyers are not allowed to represent anyone connected with a case in which the lawyer worked “personally and substantially” as a law clerk unless all parties involved in the case give their consent. A law clerk is allowed to apply for a job with a firm involved in a case their court is participating in, but only after notifying the court. If they’re hired, all counsel of record should be notified. The lawyer should be screened from any participation in the matter moving forward.
At a July 21 hearing, Barrie revealed that Dunn had purportedly sent her an email almost a year earlier that addressed Dunn’s employment at FMG as well as the screening issue. In the email, which is dated Sept. 7, 2021, Dunn writes that she notified FMG she would not be able to work on the case, and she did not think her work on the case was substantial enough for her to give notice.
In a signed affidavit included with the motion to recuse, the plaintiff’s lawyer Michael Simmons questions the validity of Dunn’s email.
“I was shocked to learn that the Court had been in possession of an e-mail for over ten months that addressed and would have avoided the first ground set forth in the Motion to Disqualify Counsel,” Simmons wrote. “It appeared to me that the timing of the Court’s disclosure of Ms. Dunn’s email was calculated and deliberate.”
In a separate affidavit, a cyber forensics expert also questions the authenticity of the email.
“…it is my expert conclusion there is alteration, manipulation and/or omission of data in or related to the emails,” said Konstantinos “Gus” Dimitrelos, a former secret service agent, in his affidavit. “Therefore, the emails presented can not be presented as genuine emails and are most likely fraudulent. In order to confirm this conclusion, I would require access to the email account and host such as the Outlook client or the hosting email server.”
In a response to the plaintiff’s motion to disqualify, FMG counsel said that Dunn has not had any involvement with FMG’s work on the case and that she cannot access the firm’s materials on the case.
Dunn did not respond to questions concerning the email, and General Counsel for FMG would not agree to go on record for this story.
After the July hearing and the appearance of the email, Simmons sent letters to Dunn and other court staff requesting they not delete, destroy, or lose any communication with relevant information to the case, including information on personal devices. On July 25, Barrie voluntarily recused herself from the case, saying she considered Simmons’ preservation letters to be “harassing and unprofessional” and that the recusal was meant to “prevent any further harassment.”
Despite this correspondence, a later email between Simmons and court staff revealed that Barrie had not made a decision on whether she would recuse. On Aug. 11, the court held a hearing which called into question Simmons’ pro hac vice status, which allows him to practice outside of his licensed state. At that hearing, Barrie said she took so long to show Dunn’s email because she forgot about it.
On Sept. 12, the plaintiffs filed a motion to appoint a special master to inspect FMG’s email system to determine if the email was authentic. Defendant Sanders filed a response against that motion on Oct. 11, calling it “frivolous and dilatory.”
Barrie did not respond to questions about whether the email was sent by Dunn or not. In response to whether Chief Judge Asha Jackson would like to comment on the matter, a judicial assistant for Jackson said she forwarded the request to Jackson, but also said it is the policy of the court not to comment on active cases.
In addition to the email, documents provided in support of the plaintiff’s motion to recuse cited Barrie’s delayed response to ruling on things like allowing the family to use fictitious names as well as a protective order. The family filed a motion to proceed using fictitious names on Oct. 9, 2020, but Barrie did not rule on that motion until over a year later on Nov. 11, 2021. The court has still not yet ruled on a protective order.
The National Crime Victim Law Institute states that while there is a presumption in favor of naming parties in a lawsuit, that presumption is not absolute. The use of pseudonyms in cases that involve crime victims can protect them from emotional harm and revictimization.
“Refusing victims the opportunity to access justice without sacrificing privacy is one form of re-victimization at the hands of the justice process,” reads a bulletin from 2011.
In his signed affidavit, expert Pete Simi – who also testified as an expert witness in the trial of those who organized the white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va. in 2017 – said he believed that if personal information about the Smith family was made public, they would fall victim to “online trolling, harassment, and death threats and offline terrorism.”
“It is my opinion the court should use any and all resources available in terms of protective measures to ensure the physical safety and protection of personal information for Mary Smith and her family,” Simi said.
Barrie did not respond to requests for comment regarding the pseudonym ruling or the protective order.
Simmons did not respond to direct questions about the pro hac vice status hearing or the length of time it took the court to rule on pseudonyms or the protective order, but did provide a general statement on the case.
“What happened to my client is tragic beyond words. A beautiful, intelligent, vibrant 15-year old girl whose innocence was destroyed because of hate,” Simmons said in an email. “Clients come to lawyers to seek justice, and in turn the justice system owes a responsibility to those who have been wronged. In my 28-years of practice and in the hundreds of cases in which I’ve been involved, what I’ve seen occur in this case is unprecedented. The courage of my client and her family to stay the course in seeking the truth and justice should be an inspiration to victims everywhere.”
Due to the motion to recuse, a ruling on Simmons’ pro hac vice will not be made until that matter is solved. At the time of this publication, no date has been set.
Originally, Judge Stacey Hydrick was set to rule on Barrie’s recusal. But on Sept. 14, she voluntarily recused herself from the case. According to the Due Process clauses of the United States Constitution, judges are required to recuse themselves when they have a financial interest in the case’s outcome or there is a strong possibility the judge’s decision will be biased.
Hydrick declined to comment, citing Rule 2.10 of the Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct, which prohibits judges from making public comments on pending proceedings or impending matters.
According to court documents, Judge Yolanda Parker-Smith will now rule on the motion to recuse.
This is an ongoing case that will be followed by Reporter Newspapers