Newton County District Attorney Layla Zon has decided on some new leadership in the local DA's office, but not all the faces are unfamiliar. After a decade there, Melanie Bell has been named new chief assistant district attorney.
Bell began with the DA's office in 2003, prior to that, she served as Chief Judge John Ott's law clerk for two years. She graduated cum laude from Duke University in 1997 and magna cum laude from the Walter F. George School of Law at Mercer in 2000. Although Bell grew up in Virginia, she grew up visiting her uncle and late-grandmother in the Covington/Oxford area.
Inspired by Commonwealth Attorney for Pulaski County, Va., Everette Shockley, Bell decided to study law.
"My parents were friends with him and his wife [who was] my piano teacher, so I heard a lot about his work from them. I loved hearing stories about him winning tough cases that people thought were unwinnable and being willing to tackle any legal challenge that came his way. Once in college and law school, I had many professors who continued to guide me along my path."
And while Bell may enjoy her career, her passion comes from the ability to help the people she comes in contact with.
"I love helping people and being the voice in the courtroom for a child or deceased victim who cannot speak for himself or herself. I have gotten to work with so many people over the years and I enjoy playing a part in helping to bring closure to them when they have been through traumatic events," she said. "I feel honored that Layla has chosen to name me the chief assistant, and I am excited about the opportunity to help our office to best serve the citizens of Newton and Walton [counties]."
Bell, along with all other assistant district attorneys, has managed a large caseload over the years. With the position of Chief ADA she will have the opportunity to move away from her own caseload that would leave her in the courtroom several days a week and assist more with administrative tasks and training.
"While I will continue to try cases, I will be focusing a lot of my energy into helping to further train and develop our current assistant district attorneys. We have an excellent group of attorneys in the two counties and I look forward to working with them as we continue to deal with changes in the law, technology and science that affect our jobs as prosecutors."
Zon expressed a lot of confidence in Bell's ability to do the job.
"I have named Melanie Bell as the Chief Assistant District Attorney for the circuit. Melanie has 12.5 years' experience in our circuit, 10 of which is in our office. During Melanie's tenure she has successfully prosecuted as an Assistant DA assigned to the courtroom, as the Crimes Against Women and Children prosecution (this position is now called the SVU prosecutor), and numerous major felony cases including murders, armed robberies and the recent death penalty case of Rodney Young. Melanie has worked hard for the people of Newton County putting in long hours preparing for court, training new Assistant DAs, and serving as a senior assistant in the office. Melanie knows the office operations inside and out, she represents this office well in the community, and she is respected both by her peers, the judges and the defense bar."
New Assistant District Attorney Chris Sperry graduated with honors from Ohio University in 2009 and from Emory law school in 2012, where he received the highest grade for criminal procedure. Though fresh out of law school, Sperry has been doing criminal prosecution for the last three years after interning with the Cobb County DA appellate division and the DeKalb County DA, mostly with the gang unit. From August to December 2012 he was a part-time ADA with Clayton County's DA's office, where he was able to serve as first chair on an armed robbery case that resulted in a life sentence.
"I'm the son of a cop and a nurse. Protecting and helping others is in my DNA. The work can be draining, but if through my work I can either provide a sense of closure to a victim or potentially prevent there being another victim down the road, then I know that all that work was worth it... I strongly believe in the cause of what I am doing. If the prosecutor doesn't care, why should the 12 people sitting in the box? Closing argument is my chance to show that I care, that I am passionate and that I am asking those 12 people to do what I truly believe is right."
Originally from Ohio, Sperry said he has transitioned fairly well.
"I have made the transition from Pepsi to Coke though. I will have to apologize to the people of Newton County for my Ohio State fandom... I am excited and truly blessed that Ms. Zon is giving me this opportunity to help serve the people of Newton County. I'm also thankful for all of my fellow attorneys, investigators, legal assistants and victim service advocates who have been helping to show me the ropes in the office. I've been here only two weeks but it already feels like a family."
Sperry was hired to replace a vacancy left when Anne Kurtz left to practice with the Attorney General's Office and will be prosecuting cases assigned to Judge Horace Johnson.
The second new ADA, Peacock attended the University of Georgia, followed by Georgia State University College of Law. He interned at the Georgia Superior Court and the DeKalb County Recorder's Court. He graduted in May and passed the bar in July; he interned at the Athens-Clarke County Solicitor General's Office. He will spend the majority of his time in Walton County (part of the Alcovy Circuit that Zon presides over).
"I decided to go to law school because I enjoy solving complex problems and writing analytically. I also like the fact that, as an attorney, I will always be meeting new people and working with members of the public. Finally, I have always had a strong interest in how our laws affect society and how our government operates. I like serving our community through my work and being on my feet in the courtroom."
According to Zon, Peacock will take over the position of drug prosecutor, which shares responsibilities for both Newton and Walton counties. He replaces Marie Greene, who left for the Griffin Judicial Circuit.
In addition, Cliff Howard was named Chief Deputy ADA. He has been an ADA in the Walton office for several years and Zon said that office will benefit from his leadership and experience.