On March 30, 2017, an Interstate-85 overpass in Atlanta erupts into flames, destroying a section of one of the country’s busiest interstates, creating a media spectacle and disrupting businesses and commuters’ routine for six weeks.
A homeless man with an addiction problem, Basil Elerby, was charged.
Because of their defense for that man, two Georgia State University College of Law alumni are receiving the Gideon’s Promise Award from the Southern Center for Human Rights at a ceremony on Tuesday, May 1. Gideon’s Promise spotlights the 1963 the Supreme Court ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright that those accused of a crime have a constitutional right to a lawyer whether they can afford one or not.
Tiffany W. Roberts (J.D. ’08), adjunct professor and deputy director of the National Institute for Teaching Ethics and Professionalism, and Mawuli M. Davis (J.D. ’02), a founding partner of Bozeman Davis Law Firm, are two of the four attorneys and a staff of investigators, social workers and paralegals forming the pro bono defense team.
As information, misinformation and assumptions about Elerby quickly became public, Roberts knew she wanted to be involved.
“As a public defender, I have represented so many people struggling with homelessness and addiction who are blamed for things because of their station in life,” Roberts said.
Public defenders were perfectly capable of representing Elerby, Roberts noted, but even with the Gideon ruling, most public defender’s offices remain underfunded and without the resources required for a case such as this one.
“It was a situation we couldn’t let go,” Davis said. “I recognized early on he was being scapegoated for failures of some governmental agencies. It was important that in the interest of justice we engage in his defense.”
Elerby was adamant that he was not guilty. “That was really important to him,” said Davis, “so we tried to put him in the best possible situation.”
Elerby’s case has been dead docketed. His defense team is helping him get his life back on track. Davis Bozeman Law Firm employs Elerby to handle clerical duties. Roberts’ community organizing experience helped marshal support for such things as completing a sobriety program, finding housing, getting groceries, securing documents and a MARTA card, meeting appointments, attending religious services and pursuing his GED.
“Our firm takes a holistic approach to our representation, and identify social services our clients need,” Davis said, adding he is receiving this award on behalf of his firm. He noted that his partner, Robert Bozeman (J.D. ’01), joins him in their commitment to community.
“Basil is a great guy,” Roberts said. “It’s not easy to change from 10 years of dealing with addiction and homelessness to now having a home, a job and people looking to you to succeed. We are excited to share this award with him and everyone who worked on his defense.”
Davis pointed out the significance of this award to him.
“The Promise Award is a reminder that we should be very careful about disposing of people,” he said. “These are human beings who shouldn’t be judged just by their current circumstances, but by looking at their potential. That’s what we’re proud of.”