ATLANTA (AP) — Nearly five dozen people charged with racketeering in connection with protests against a planned police and fire training facility near Atlanta appeared in court Monday as their supporters gathered outside the courthouse.
There have been protests against the planned training center – called “Cop City” by opponents – for more than two years. Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr made a sweeping indictment in August, using the state’s anti-crime law to target the protesters, labeling them “militant anarchists.”
Protesters and civil rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have condemned the charges and accused Carr, a Republican, of using heavy-handed charges to try to silence a movement that has galvanized environmentalists and anti-police protesters across the country.
All 61 defendants were scheduled to be arraigned on Monday, meaning the charges against them were to be formally read out in court. Fifty-seven of them appeared in small groups over a three-hour period before Fulton County Superior Court Judge Kimberly Esmond Adams, and each waived arraignment.
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Four defendants did not appear. One of them was suspected to be in France, and prosecutors didn’t have a good address for him. One was in federal immigration custody. Another non-American who left the country tried to return twice in recent days to attend the hearing but was denied entry, her lawyer said. A fourth simply didn’t appear.
Most of the people who appeared had not yet surrendered to the Fulton County Jail to be arraigned on their charges. Some had recently reached agreement with prosecutors on bail amounts and conditions, while others were still in the process of doing so.
Adams told them they had until 10 a.m. Tuesday, 24 hours after the arraignment began, to turn themselves in. If they fail to do so, she warned, a warrant could be issued for their arrest and any bail would be revoked.
Adams ordered defense attorneys to provide hard drives to the attorney general’s office by Friday so they can obtain copies of evidence in the case, known as discovery. Prosecutors must finish copying and distributing that evidence to defense attorneys by the end of the year.
A final hearing will be scheduled no later than the end of June, Adams said. She told the defendant groups that if they want to reach a deal, they must reach an agreement with prosecutors by that date.
A few hundred Stop Cop City supporters gathered outside the courthouse in downtown Atlanta on Monday morning, chanting, chanting and waving signs.
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Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and other supporters say the 85-acre, $90 million facility would replace inadequate training facilities and help address difficulties in recruiting and retaining police officers. Opponents have raised concerns that it could lead to greater militarization of police and that its construction in the South River Forest would worsen environmental damage in a poor, majority-black area.
Protests against the project, which at times resulted in violence and vandalism, escalated after the fatal shooting of 26-year-old protester Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, known as Tortuguita, in January. A prosecutor said last month he would not file charges against the state troopers who shot Paez Terán, saying their use of deadly force was “objectively reasonable.”
Most of those charged in August had already been indicted for their alleged involvement in the movement. RICO charges carry a sentence of five to 20 years in prison, which may be imposed in addition to the sentence for the underlying offenses.
Among those charged: more than three dozen people previously facing domestic terrorism charges in connection with the protests; three bail fund directors previously accused of money laundering; and three activists previously charged with felony intimidation after authorities said they distributed leaflets calling a state trooper a “murderer” for his involvement in the death of Paez Terán.
Prosecutors have alleged a conspiracy that includes a variety of underlying crimes, ranging from possessing accelerant and throwing Molotov cocktails at police officers to reimbursing glue and food costs for activists who spent months in the woods nearby camped at the construction site.
Associated Press photographer Mike Stewart contributed reporting.