The girl came forward about what the preacher had done to her after her parents caught her trying to slit her wrists.
In the years that followed, the family’s world unraveled in their rural community in the North Georgia mountains. The girl’s health deteriorated from a congenital heart defect, and many in their church shunned them and rallied around the traveling evangelist who she told police had raped and molested her in her home while her parents slept, the family told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News earlier this year.
The truth might have come out in a trial, but that didn’t happen because of who Jason Brothers hired to defend him: attorney and state House Speaker David Ralston. At the time, state law allowed lawyers serving in the Georgia Legislature to put off any court proceeding by telling judges they had state-level duties to tend to, and Ralston was known to do that over and over again.
An assistant district attorney broke the news to the family, telling them to get ready for a long, long wait.
After almost six years and at least eight case delays filed by Ralston, the waiting finally came to an end in a Union County courtroom on Wednesday, with a negotiated plea that allowed Brothers to avoid prison and return home to Ohio. With a terse apology, the 40-year-old who preached sermons from a wheelchair admitted to touching the victim’s breast and vaginal area, pleading guilty to two counts of felony sexual battery on a minor.
“Someone I knew and trusted invaded my body and soul,” the now-21-year-old victim said in court, “and in the process tearing me apart … Some days, I don’t even recognize myself or the person I have become as this trauma has shaped me into someone else.”
Enotah Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jeff Langley said a plea deal for 10 years on probation was the best thing he could do for the victim after the repeated delays in the case. Those delays had so frustrated him that he once vented in open court when Ralston didn’t show up for a scheduled hearing, sending instead a law partner who said they’d forgotten to put the hearing on their calendars and that Ralston was in Atlanta on legislative business.
Langley said the case against Brothers would have been much stronger had it been tried three years ago or more.
“The jury sees a 21-year-old woman, not that 14-year-old victim,” Langley said. “We were relying on witnesses remembering something that happened in 2012. That makes it difficult on prosecutors. It raises all those questions about how clear are memories.”
Asked to comment Wednesday, Ralston said in a statement emailed from his spokesman, “As is often the case in criminal proceedings, the Brothers case was resolved by a negotiated plea agreed to by the District Attorney and my client and accepted in open court.”
Langley said the deal forced Brothers to admit wrongdoing in front of the community, while sparing the victim the physical and mental strain of a trial. It also puts Brothers on the sex offender registry, banishes him from the four-county Enotah circuit and bars him from interacting with any female child under the age of 16.
Because Brothers got credit for the nearly six years he’s been under house arrest in Ohio, those conditions will only last four years.
The victim’s mother, Laurie Wilson, said the family agreed with the plea deal because her daughter can’t handle a trial or a possible litany of appeals. Her daughter suffers seizures, uses oxygen and a feeding tube and has developed thyroid problems and an iron deficiency.
“I feel like he got just a slap on the wrist,” Wilson told the AJC on Thursday. “I think that’s what all Ralston’s clients intend to get, which is why they hire him.”
It’s only the latest example of the advantage Ralston’s clients may have gained by the years of delay. In May, Gilmer County prosecutors agreed to dismiss the last remaining charges against Derek J. Key, accused a decade ago of sexual misconduct with two 15-year-old boys. In dropping the case, the prosecutor said the victims weren’t cooperating.
The Brothers case was also the last of four that Ralston said he would close out before taking on any more clients charged with crimes. He made the pledge in a speech from the House well after an AJC/Channel 2 investigation revealed he perpetually stalled cases for clients accused of such crimes as child abuse, rape, assault, terroristic threats and drunk driving, and for clients embroiled in lawsuits.
The law that allowed attorney-lawmakers to delay court appearances has since been amended. The law now allows judges to deny legislative leave delays through a four-part test looking at the nature of the legislative duties and how much the delay would affect the case.
Ralston noted that he triggered that change by appointing an advisory panel to examine whether the state law needed to be revised.
“Throughout this process, I have honored the two promises I made in February,” Ralston’s emailed statement said. “First, that we would review the legislative leave law and make changes if necessary, and we did. Second, that I would not accept any new criminal cases until the four discussed in the media were resolved – the Brothers case being the last – and they have been.”
Ralston has said previously that he broke no laws by delaying cases, that he doesn’t control case calendars and that the justice system moves slow in North Georgia courts anyway. Two complaints with the State Bar of Georgia filed by victims in other cases have accused him of campaigning and fundraising when he told judges he couldn’t come to court; Ralston has defended that practice, too, telling The Augusta Chronicle he’d think about stopping “if George Soros will promise that he will not send any more money into Georgia.”
Brothers was indicted in 2013 on charges of rape, statutory rape, two counts of aggravated child molestation, three counts of child molestation and simple assault. The incident happened in October 2012, when he was staying at the family’s home while preaching at North Mt. Zion Church of God in Hiawassee. Brothers has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, court records show. The girl said she got up during the night for a glass of water, and he asked her for a hug, then grabbed her and sexually assaulted her.
The victim said in court Wednesday she chooses to forgive Brothers and refuses to “let this person torment me any more with the flashbacks, restless nights and panic attacks.
“I know in my heart that the charges on the paper will never compare to what he did to me that night,” she said, “but I hope after all this time I will finally be able to get some peace and move on with my life as a stronger person than I was before.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News reported in February that House Speaker David Ralston used the privileges of his office to delay court cases for clients of his private law practice. A state law dating back to 1905 allowed legislators to put off court dates if they notified a judge that their lawmaker duties required them to be elsewhere, and Ralston used the privilege repeatedly for years, keeping clients out of jail and civil complaints from moving forward in courts. An independent review of eight counties by a former FBI agent found that since Ralston became House speaker in 2010, he cited his legislative responsibilities to delay 226 cases a total of 966 times.
Further reporting by the AJC revealed Ralston played a part in expanding the law in 2006 so that legislative leave could be claimed year-round, not just during legislative sessions. The General Assembly amended the law again this year based on recommendations from a Ralston-appointed advisory panel, giving judges the power to overrule legislative leave through a four-part test.