Part X: A Community Perspective
Part X features ‘a community perspective’ from the viewpoint of Pastor Mack De’von Knight and Pastor Timothy Bessent. Bessent reached out after the earlier parts of Unfinished Justice were released and wanted to share another viewpoint to refute the narrative that Presley was the victim in this case. He and Knight offered their accounts from shooting to sentencing as persons of color and on behalf of some of the black community in Camden County.
It’s been three months since Zecheriah Presley was sentenced following his conviction of violating his oath as a public officer. Mack Knight and Timothy Bessent are seated at a coffee shop in Kingsland for an interview on the case, both with documents they have collected over the 18 month period since Tony Green was killed. Both have been pivotal and noteworthy actors in the story since it happened back in June 2018, garnering both the labels of agitators or race baiters by their opposition.
But Bessent and Knight say their message is pure and justice oriented, skewed only by a narrative to protect a former officer whose use of force could have been prevented in a community that wasn’t ready to hold a police officer accountable for his wrongdoing.
As friends and confidants of the Green family, both have participated in vigils and marches, have met with law enforcement, have attended court hearings and trials, and have spoken publicly to the media. Both are pastors and residents of Camden County.
On the night of the shooting, Knight was leaving the local Applebee’s when he saw several cops go soaring by with lights, but no sirens. About an hour after the shooting itself, he said he knew something was wrong and he started getting calls. It wasn’t but an hour after the actual shooting that Knight learned that the person shot was Tony Green and he went to the scene. Knight described it as busy, chaotic, and on lockdown by law enforcement, surrounded by people who were already outraged, upset, and crying. Without knowing too many of the facts, a number of people, Knight said, were fearful.
The morning after the shooting, both met with the Kingsland Police Department and the District Attorney. They say they were assured that the case would be handled with the utmost integrity and they were trusting of the process when the District Attorney’s office extended the offer to pay for Green’s funeral with victim assistance funds. Knight says Chief Griffiths told Mack to come to the PD at 8AM the morning after the shooting, which is when Knight says Griffiths apologized that the situation happened, asking Knight to pass along his condolences to the family of Tony Green. Knight, however, reportedly told Griffiths that he [Griffiths] needed to tell the Green family himself. That is something that didn’t happen, though.
The day after the shooting, activists held a prayer vigil to remember Tony Green. No one in
leadership from the City of Kingsland was present, which Bessent and Knight say rubbed the black community the wrong way immediately. This was only exacerbated by the city’s refusal to answer questions or offer any commentary on what would be changed immediately as a result of a fatal officer-involved shooting.
In the days following the incident, a civil suit against Presley was filed by the family of Tony Green. The suit also named the City of Kingsland and resulted in the cessation of commentary from city officials and leaders entirely, all of whom have still refrained from commenting to this day due to the fact that the civil matter is yet to be resolved.
And that trust in the process did not last long, according to Bessent and Knight. Looking back on the events from present day, Bessent and Knight now say it was mostly a charade by the District Attorney’s Office, that no conviction was ever really wanted by prosecutors, and that Presley got off too easily. The result is a still divided community and a block of the population that has an adversarial relationship with law enforcement.
The Release of the Video
Bessent and Knight said they could tell things were not going to go in their favor when the police department would not release the body camera footage. Community activists tried for months to get Kingsland PD and the GBI to release the video, but neither would do so.
“It could have answered a lot of questions early on,” Knight said.
When it came time for the trial, it was not until a week before – during the immunity hearing for Presley – that the Green family saw a portion of the body camera footage for the first time. Bessent says it was wrong for the district attorney’s office to expose Green’s family to the seriousness of the video for the first time in open court, especially since Presley and his family saw the video two months prior in Presley’s attorney’s law office. (The video was turned over to the defense attorneys by the prosecutors as part of the discovery process.) They say the Green family should have been privy to the video in private so they could handle their emotions and grieve.
“How are you going to show it to them in open court for the first time and expect them not to react?” Bessent said during the conversation on the case.
Both men said in their interviews that they took issue to the fact that only a portion of the video was shown in open court or through any part of the trial, citing comments made in Part IX: Presley’s Family Speaks in which Presley’s wife commented about video not shown at trial that showed Presley throwing up after the shooting. Bessent and Knight said the video in its entirety could have shed a lot more light on what happened between Green and Presley before and after the shooting.
“Maybe there is something we don’t know or haven’t seen,” Knight said. Noting a lack of transparency and placing the blame on the district attorney’s office, they take issue with the idea that Presley and his family have seen more body camera footage than the Green family and the public. “That’s wrong. Even now. They’ve seen more than anyone.”
But neither believe the video in its totality would have absolved Presley of his responsibility or wrongdoing.
“The GBI issued a warrant based on what they saw in the video,” Bessent shared. “That tells us that even though the video was dark and had to be enhanced, they could tell something was wrong.”
Bessent also refutes statements made by Presley’s mother in which she stated that no one, other than Presley’s pastor, took pictures of Presley on the night of the shooting. “There was never any indication by EMTs or any other officers that Presley had any injuries from that night,” he said.
“But if the video shows Tony Green in the wrong, what can we do?”
The City of Kingsland Should Be Held Accountable for the Hiring of Zecheriah Presley and the Death of Tony Green.
Both Knight and Bessent believe that Presley was so honest on his job application because he was promised a job by someone and it had already been secured. They maintain that a person of color would not have been considered, let alone hired, by the Kingsland Police Department with the number of ‘flags’ indicated on Presley’s job application in personnel file. That is why, they say, internal investigations found no wrongdoing on the part of Presley and why Presley wasn’t disciplined for incidents mentioned in his file. Bessent and Knight say the Kingsland PD was complicit in allowing Presley to ‘harass’ people on the other side of the tracks.
They also say the Kingsland Police Department had a number of opportunities and, in their opinions, reasons to fire Presley but did not. In addition to probationary reviews which said Presley ‘needed more training,’ they say ranking Sergeants had a meeting about Presley and why he should be terminated because they were ‘worried something like this would happen.’ But the complaints of the sergeants reportedly never made it up to the Chief and there was no documentation of such in Presley’s file. All by design, Bessent and Knight say.
When asked to what degree the police department shares blame in relation to Presley in the death of Tony Green, both Knight and Bessent said ‘equally.’
The District Attorney’s Office Failed the Community in Prosecuting the Case.
One of the greatest concerns for both Knight and Bessent was the absence of Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson during the Presley trial. On the heels of the Sasser case in neighboring Glynn County, Johnson was noticeably absent from the spotlight of the Presley/Green case and the case was handled almost entirely by ADA Rocky Bridges.
They also say, in hindsight, that the Green family and the community should have pushed harder for a full recusal by the district attorney’s office to the extent of having a new venue entirely. Both hold that the judges, the prosecutors, and the jury should have been from somewhere outside of Camden County.
Bessent said in his interview that he believes everyone is entitled to bond, so his issue was not that Presley was given bond, but that his bond modifications allowed him to do “whatever he wanted,” including staying out later under his curfew and traveling out of state for work and without consideration of the Green family. Bessent said the Green family was not given information in a timely manner throughout the process, which was only exacerbated when the assigned victim advocate died and another was not assigned until months later after repeated demands by the family.
It didn’t end there, though. Bessent and Knight say the district attorney’s office dropped the ball on how they presented the charges to the grand jury and when the grand jury did not return an indictment for murder, the district attorney still could have added on enhanced charges. Both say a murder charge should have been on the table for the jury to consider.
Additionally, Bessent said Presley’s job review and personnel file should have been fair game when he took the stand to demonstrate a pattern and to show how the behavior related to his character. He also said the Chief of Police at the time as the Assistant Chief of Police should have been subpoenaed and put on the stand. “But they just weren’t looking for a conviction,” Bessent said of the district attorney’s office. He noted that in his closing statement, ADA Rocky Bridges said [the office] “doesn’t want to prosecute police.” Bessent said that statement alone illustrated to him that all efforts were not put forth during the trial and it was decided from the get go not to secure a conviction.
Both Bessent and Knight also conceded that the conviction of Violation of Oath of Office while finding Presley not guilty on both of the other charges was inconsistent with the statute since he was found not guilty of the criminal charge, something they once again credit to the incompetence of the district attorney’s office.
Bessent and Knight offered a conflicting account of the trial itself from that of Tim and Presley’s family, saying there was a racial divide with blacks on one side and white on the other.
Interpreting Presley’s behavior much differently than Juror Tim from earlier parts of the series, Bessent said the only time Presley showed remorse was during the opening statements of the trial and he felt it was all very rehearsed. He also said he saw Presley smirk at Green’s sister during the bond modification hearing not long after the shooting and that Presley showed immense arrogance during questioning by ADA Bridges.
Bessent also said the increased security during the trial, the police K9s, and additional resources were confusing to him, as they are not standard for other murder trials. He said he thought it was strange that the Sheriff was present for portions of the trial toward the end of the week as well and both he and Knight thought it was wrong that the Presley family was escorted out of the courthouse but the Green family was not. “There are no findings of of ours that there were threats on social media against the Presleys,” Bessent shared. “Authorities may have had some things we didn’t, though.”
The Unfinished Justice: Kingsland, Ga series began after a juror, referred to as Tim, reached out following a column published on the sentencing of Presley. The multi-part coverage of the trial from Tim’s perspective is what led both the Presley family and Bessent and Knight to share their stories as well.
Bessent says Tim, who shared his story after the trial, is to blame for a number of hiccups at trial. First, he says Tim was wrong to share any of the case information with his wife, referring to Tim and his wife’s social media search for the bakery of the later dismissed. Bessent said Tim’s acknowledgment of the social media search should have led him to be excused from duty, not Juror #15. .
Bessent also opposes how Tim handled reporting an issue he – and two other jurors – were privy to during deliberations to the judge. All three jurors penned notes to the judge explaining different events, but Bessent says those notes should have gone through the jury foreman for signature under the rules of the court before they were given to the judge. The issue, however, is that Tim and the other two jurors were reaching out the judge about the jury foreperson, who was ultimately excused from duty. Both Bessent and Knight say the judge mishandled the conduct by the jurors.
“There were other people on the jury who were friends with the Presley family, who are even Facebook friends with some of the Presley family today,” Bessent said. Another juror is the father of City of Kingsland employee, according to Bessent. That’s the result of a smaller community, they say, as the juror list was sealed but a number of the jurors were known within the community, something Knight says only reiterates why a different venue should have been used for the trial.
Bessent says he doesn’t fully understand why the Presley family had to share their side at all. “Presley was facing 20 years, and he got one. I think they should just be silent.”
Bessent and Knight both say they have sacrificed relationships in the community in order to be vocal about the Green case. Pastors in other churches were quick to support the first vigil after Green’s death but have been noticeably absent and silent since. Others in the faith community have reportedly shied away from the media attention, but Knight says they haven’t offered any suggestions on a better way to right the wrongs. The ostracization from the faith community isn’t enough for them to stop speaking out, though, as they say the issue is undoubtedly rooted in race.
That’s why they aren’t dissatisfied with the media coverage of the case in the community, though they say they would have liked to have seen more national headlines and more coverage from around the nation. Bessent said the Presley-Green shooting was one of the most egregious officer-involved shootings in the nation in recent years.
It isn’t all bad though, and certainly enough to quell their efforts. Kingsland, they say, has seen positive changes in the police department – including a Citizen Review Panel and a consideration of persons of color in hiring, but now their focus is on turnover in the district attorney’s office. There is a petition to remove Jackie Johnson from office with over 1,000 signatures between the handwritten signers and the online petition. Bessent and Knight have both reached out to their state representatives and senator in hopes of having them prod the Department of Justice for an inquiry, something they say would hold Presley accountable for civil rights violations.
When asked if Presley showing more remorse, at least to their own standards, would have changed anything, both said no. With regard to forgiveness, Knight said some in the community have been quicker to forgive than others. Those who are slow to forgive are cautious because of the handling of the case by the district attorney’s office and the judge.
Bessent said, “Our only concern since Day 1 is that justice be offered. After attending the case, I have a firm belief that justice was not served. There are gaps. We are still striving for unity and we have investments here, kids and grand kids. We are far from agitators. We are just rowing against the current.”
Knight, who still pastors the Green family, says he has just encouraged them to stay focused on their faith in God, knowing the system is not always fair and just.
“There are many people who think this was tried fairly. But until everyone is in the room to have these hard conversations, nothing is going to change,” he said.