By Ray Glier
The eight-year-old girl put a chilling title to her written and pictorial narrative of sexual abuse by her mother’s boyfriend: “It Happens at Night.”
That little girl is one reason Chris Cohilas (J.D. ’02), a partner at Watson Spence, helped create Lily Pad, a sanctuary for the sexually abused in Albany, Georgia. Because of Lily Pad, victims do not have to retell the horror in a sterile, tiled hospital room or to a police officer at their home, in front of the abuser. Lily Pad offers victims a comfortable room in a small house with calming paint colors and stuffed animals.
Lily Pad is where the healing starts for the victim and the reckoning starts for the abuser. Victims are carefully examined—physically and emotionally—by trained professionals, which include nurses trained in forensics. DNA is collected. A video recording is made of the victim’s interview. The evidence chain is solid.
This eight-year-old’s abuser was sentenced to life in prison. “We removed him from this community forever,” said Cohilas, a former prosecutor for Dougherty County. “We removed a lot of these abusers from this community forever.”
Lily Pad has changed the way sexual assault is handled in the community. Since it was established in 2008, the organization has helped over 3,500 primary and secondary victims. And the conviction rate of offenders rose to nearly 100 percent, Cohilas said.
“It was a very beautiful and organic thing that happened in our community. We have this resource that is used not only by this community, but by many rural communities that don’t have these resources. It is so needed. I don’t think people conceptualize how often sexual assault occurs,” he said.
Cohilas, 41, is more than an attorney in southwest Georgia. In 2014, he was elected county-wide to serve as chairman of the Dougherty County Board of Commissioners. He is a community builder, an unabashed cheerleader of Albany and Dougherty County. His leadership after tornado-producing storms in January 2017 ushered in federal dollars and support to accelerate the area’s recovery—one of the reasons he was named one of the 100 most influential Georgians by Georgia Trendmagazine in 2018.
Cohilas also serves those in need through his work as a board member of the Georgia Public Defender Council, the statewide, independent agency that provides representation to indigent people.
“Compared to where it was 10 to 15 years ago, indigent defense, at least in my circuit, is a superior product,” Cohilas said.
It is not only in the interests of the indigent to provide a credible defense, it is in the best interest of the state. When he was a prosecutor, the last thing Cohilas wanted to see opposite him in the courtroom was an ill-prepared defense attorney. It is Cohilas’ mission on the Georgia Public Defender Council to continue to improve that side of the courtroom.
“When you have competent and effective representation, there is an appropriate check and balance on the state,” he said. “It ensures that if a conviction is obtained, it is done in a way that is constitutional and prevents the cost and expense of retrial.
“Retrial causes an enormous disruption. If you can do it right one time, do it right one time. Everybody benefits from making sure the system, on both sides, operates more competently and effectively.”
So where did Cohilas’ healthy dose of empathy come from?
He said it came from his father, Alex Cohilas, and his mother, Brenda Crowe. The family lived by the Greek ideal of “philotimo,” which for the Cohilas family meant “You should stand for your fellow brother. You should stand against injustice.”
Alex Cohilas lived it and breathed it, according to his son. He was a master carpenter, but also a firefighter who organized the Fraternal Order of Clayton County Firefighters to combat cronyism in the county regarding hiring and promotions. Alex filed civil lawsuits against the county and not only succeeded in a transformation, but actually became the fire chief.
“My father was told he would never be promoted because of his activism,” Chris Cohilas said. “You fight injustice and keep things honest—that came from home at an early age.”