Newsmaker of the Year, Robert James: Driving Force in a Year of Big Prosecutions

DeKalb DA, a career prosecutor, is making connections with an eye on higher office

, Daily Report


Robert James' big cases included Andrea Sneiderman, school contract rigging and a corruption case against DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis.
Robert James' big cases included Andrea Sneiderman, school contract rigging and a corruption case against DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis.

DeKalb County's top prosecutor found himself in the eye of the storm in 2013.

District Attorney Robert James Jr. created much of the whirlwind himself: boldly pursuing murder and conspiracy charges against Andrea Sneiderman, prosecuting high-ranking school district officials for rigging construction contracts and convening a special purpose grand jury to investigate public corruption, which ultimately led to the indictment of the county's most powerful politician, CEO Burrell Ellis.

As the driving force in these prominent and complex prosecutions, James is the Daily Report's Newsmaker of the Year.

The Sneiderman case, the sordid tale of a wealthy Dunwoody widow accused of conspiring with her former boss and lover to kill her husband in 2010, grabbed national attention and top spots on 24-hour cable news networks.

Now James, 41, is ramping up for another high-profile case that could solidify his reputation as a young-gun prosecutor, or, if he fails, convince people that he has overreached.

In his sight is suspended CEO Ellis, a fellow Democrat, who has been accused of shaking down county vendors for campaign contributions. The trial could start early next year.

"It's all dependent on the outcome, but this could be a pivotal case in his career," said criminal defense attorney Ken Hodges, who is a former Albany district attorney. "If he wins, he will come out the defender of the public. Getting out a corrupt public official is what every prosecutor should do. If he loses, he will have one powerful political enemy.

"As they say, if you shoot at the king, you'd better kill him," Hodges said.

James, who is in the third year of his term as DA, has been transparent about his ambition to seek higher office. He told the Daily Report in August 2011, when he was chosen as an under-40 up-and-comer for our On the Rise list, that "Congress and the U.S. Senate sounds interesting." In a recent interview, James was coy about seeking another public office, but said he doesn't expect to retire from the DA's office.

James grew up in Murfreesboro, Tenn., where his father was an assistant high school principal, and later a minister, careers that followed six years as a defensive back in the NFL. His mother was a teacher.

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