Brickman for DeKalb DA 

Dream candidate faces uphill battle

The choice for DeKalb County district attorney boils down to one question: Who do you want at the district attorney's desk when a file alleging, say, the political assassination of a sheriff-elect lands there?

Let's face it: DeKalb is ground zero for corruption, with misdeeds that rival those alleged of the sheriff and the ex-mayor one county over. In DeKalb, politicians and their cronies don't just stand accused of taking bribes and misspending public funds. In one instance, a politician, with help from his cronies, killed the guy who defeated him.

Couple that with a district attorney's office that recently launched a high-profile and bodiless murder prosecution in the decade-old case of missing Emory student Shannon Melendi, then mix in a mega-powerful county CEO who was investigated last year by a DeKalb grand jury. Before you know it, the county needs more than a pro to run the district attorney's office. It needs a miracle worker.

Gwen Keyes, 35, the Democratic contender for the seat, is eloquent, well connected and knowledgeable about DeKalb courts. Having spent seven years in the county's solicitor general's office -- five as solicitor general -- Keyes oversaw 76 staffers, a $4 million budget, and all of DeKalb's misdemeanor cases. The Emory law grad also spent three years prosecuting felonies for the Fulton County district attorney's office.

Keyes is a formidable candidate with a promising political career and an excellent chance of winning the race; after all, DeKalb is heavily Democratic.

It's a shame, then, that her opponent, Republican Jeffrey Brickman, is hands-down the better choice.

In February, Brickman, 43, who had been a DeKalb assistant district attorney before landing a spot as a federal prosecutor, threw his name into the hat from which Gov. Sonny Perdue picked the successor to outgoing District Attorney J. Tom Morgan.

Perdue chose Brickman, who's anything but a GOP brownnoser. In an interview with CL, he struck us as firmly apolitical -- which ought to be a prerequisite for a county's top prosecutor.

For instance, Brickman says that while trying federal narcotics cases, he found mandatory drug sentencing unjust. And unlike other prosecutors, he knocked down every legal hurdle to make sure Clarence Harrison was quickly released after DNA tests showed he couldn't have been guilty of the rape for which he'd been convicted.

Then, there's Brickman's intimate familiarity with high-profile prosecutions. He handled cyber-crime, child exploitation and drug cases for seven years as an assistant U.S. attorney. (During that same time, Keyes was trying only misdemeanors.)

In his eight years in the DeKalb district attorney's office, Brickman has handled major prosecutions, including that of Jan Barry Sandlin. More than 25 years after the death of the 4-month-old son of Sandlin's girlfriend, Brickman helped make the tough call of exhuming the infant's body, and was able to convince a jury that Sandlin murdered the child.

Brickman's success in that trial uniquely qualifies him to oversee the Melendi case, with its similar evidentiary challenges. More significantly, his even-keeled professionalism makes him just the type you'd like to see at the district attorney's desk when, God forbid, the next Sidney Dorsey-style case comes along. Then-DeKalb Sheriff Dorsey was convicted of murder for masterminding the assassination of Derwin Brown, who had foiled Dorsey's re-election bid.

It's troubling that Keyes raises some citizens' concerns that Morgan, the previous district attorney, unfairly prosecuted Dorsey for racial reasons. In that claim, she skates close to pandering, which is particularly pernicious when you consider both the victim and his killer were black.

Keyes' major criticism of Brickman is that he'll have a hard time helping the office reflect the county's racial diversity. The 128-person staff currently is 56 percent white and 40 percent African-American; the county is 39 percent white and 55 percent African-American.

That equation could be improved, but it's hardly outrageous. At any rate, it's the result of hires made by district attorneys past, not Brickman. In his nine months as district attorney, half of 16 hires have been minorities.

But for all his skills, which have earned him the endorsements of past district attorneys Morgan and Bob Wilson, is he electable?

"I haven't talked to anyone who doesn't want him to win," says Larry Schneider, director of the DeKalb public defender's office. "And I haven't talked to anyone who thinks he will win."

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