Noni Battiste-Kosoko spent her 19th birthday locked up in an Atlanta City Detention Center cell.
Six days later, on July 11, the teenager—who was homeless and had a mental illness —was found alone, face down and dead in a cell at the detention center. Like the Fulton County Jail, it is run by the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office.
She’d been held in custody for 53 days because she couldn’t afford $1,000 for bond. Battiste-Kosoko waited for a disposition of charges that never came on a bench warrant for misdemeanor trespassing and vandalism allegedly committed at Langston Hughes High School in February.
As Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis books former President Donald Trump and 18 of his allies this week on charges alleging a wide-ranging conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election results, some activists and legal organizations are calling out the toll these massive, resource-intensive RICO cases are taking on adjudicating cases for the more than 3,400 people held at the woefully overcrowded Fulton jail.
Battiste-Kosoko is only one on a growing list of deaths for people in custody of the Fulton Sheriff’s Office. Fifteen people died at the Fulton jail in 2022 and so far this year, seven more have died. Last week, 66-year-old Alexander Hawkins was found dead in his cell after being arrested in July on a shoplifting charge over a pair of pants and an electric shaver.
“I literally think that [Willis’s] decision to go forward with the Trump case in this manner, regardless of whether he’s guilty or not—it is costing lives,” said Devin Franklin, a policy lawyer at the Southern Center for Human Rights and a former Fulton County public defender. “We know this because over 20 people have died since the beginning of last year. Despite being half the size of Rikers Island [New York City’s largest jail], we had more deaths than Rikers last year.”
Two days after Battiste-Kosoko’s death, the Justice Department opened an investigation into conditions at the Fulton jail. Violence is also a problem: In 2022, the jail had 11 fires, 534 fights, and 114 stabbings, according to Atlanta Magazine. During one Fulton County Commission meeting, Fulton Sheriff Pat Labat rolled in a wheelbarrow full of shanks and said that, on average, one inmate gets stabbed daily.
Trump didn’t have to worry about jail conditions when he arrived for booking on Thursday evening. He’d already negotiated a $200,000 bond in advance of his brief cameo at Rice Street, as the Fulton jail is known.
“You’re getting this inequitable system, where people with more money are able to bond out and people who have lesser means are sitting in jail, and unfortunately, too many of them are dying,” said Fallon McClure, Deputy Director of Policy & Advocacy at the ACLU of Georgia.
Fully 49% of those held at the Fulton jail – or 1,688 people – have not even been indicted yet. Meanwhile, Willis has about ten prosecutors solely working on the Trump case. She is also prosecuting another sprawling racketeering case against Young Thug and the Young Slime Life (YSL) collective, a group of 28 local rappers accused of operating a criminal gang.
During a “Stop Cop City” protest at the Fulton County Courthouse last week, Rev. Keyanna Jones, a local activist, decried the “huge human cost” of the Trump and YSL cases.
“Instead of looking at what’s happening in the Fulton County Jail and what’s going on right under their own noses, Fani Willis is chasing Trump like the rest of the world,” said Jones. “Meanwhile, people are dying on her watch.”
By the Numbers
Between December 2020 and June 2022, Fulton County’s backlog of civil and criminal cases jumped from 149,200 to 206,000—the largest increase in the state. That increase was initially attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic because it essentially shut down the court system for months.
In response, the Fulton County Commission earmarked $75 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act towards reducing the backlog by opening additional courtrooms, extending court hours, and hiring about 300 new staff members. It was dubbed Project ORCA due to the whale-like size of the caseload. As of mid-February, the backlog had shrunk markedly to 58,000 cases from the June 2022 peak of 206,000, and as of July 31, it’s down to just under 40,000, according to the latest ORCA report.
But that work has had little to no impact on the overcrowded jail population. The ORCA report’s scorecard of Fulton County’s justice system shows the jail failing to meet standards in any area, which are based on 1996 guidelines from the Supreme Court.
The average stay in a Fulton detention facility was 65 days in July, more than double the recommended standard of one month. Meanwhile, the percentage of the people who haven’t been indicted has increased – from 46.6% in September 2022 to the current 49% of the jail’s 3,642 inmates, (49%) according to an ACLU study. (The federal standard is 10%.)
Relatedly, the Fulton District Attorney’s Office’s felony criminal case clearance rate since May has plummeted by 17 percentage points—from 72% to 55%. The federal guidelines say 98% of felony cases should be closed after a year, but for Willis’ office, it was only 62% as of July. What’s more, at the six-month mark, her office had closed only 31% of felony cases, compared with the recommended goal of 90%.
“A RICO backlog”
On Aug. 4, 34-year-old Christopher Smith died in a hospital shortly after being found unresponsive in the Fulton jail. He’d been held without bond, awaiting trial for nearly four years on a host of felony charges.
“So the last three years of his life were spent inside of a jail on charges that he had not been found guilty of,” said ACLU Georgia’s McClure.
It might sound counterintuitive: If the overall case backlog for Fulton County has been sharply reduced by 75% in a year, why are the county’s detention facilities filled with people waiting months—sometimes years—to get a hearing? The Fulton District Attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
But, according to McClure, Willis’ office prioritizes adjudicating cases first for people out on bond instead of people in custody. The resource-intensive RICO cases further bog down case resolution for people in custody; they are time-consuming to prosecute because of their complexity and the high number of defendants involved.
The YSL RICO trial has been underway since January, and it’s still mired in jury selection.
The Trump RICO indictment unveiled earlier this month spans 98 pages, with over 160 acts where former President Trump and the alleged co-conspirators are accused of doing things to overturn election results.
“At some point, this is no longer a COVID backlog,” said McClure. “For all intents and purposes, it’s a RICO backlog now.”