Dennis Sanders, an unabashed Pollyanna who said he truly believes in truth, justice and the American way, felt down recently.
Toombs Judicial Circuit District Attorney Dennis Sanders speaks during an April 2005 ceremony honoring the victims of domestic violence in McDuffie County.
Photo by Jason B. Smith
He didn't want to spend half a day driving down to the biannual meeting of the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia. His wife, however, insisted.
What awaited him last week was the biggest shock of his life, Mr. Sanders said.
"First time in my life I've ever been shaking. I wasn't nervous. I was just so shocked by it."
His peers named Mr. Sanders, 58, the District Attorney of the Year.
It was no shock for friend and peer Augusta Judicial Circuit District Attorney Danny Craig.
It's not just that Mr. Sanders has been a prosecutor for 33 years and the Toombs Judicial Circuit district attorney 22 years.
It's how he conducts himself professionally and personally, his peers and friends say.
"He is a consummate gentleman," said attorney Freddie Sanders, who is not related. "I don't think I've ever heard anyone say a bad word about him."
Attorney Pete Theodocion said he hasn't had many cases opposing Mr. Sanders, but defense attorneys know they will be treated professionally by him and his staff.
They also know they'll face a hard battle when entering one of Mr. Sanders' six counties: McDuffie, Lincoln, Warren, Taliaferro, Wilkes and Glascock.
About six years ago, Mr. Sanders and Mr. Theodocion were picking a jury in McDuffie County, and Mr. Theodocion asked the about 30 potential jurors how many knew Mr. Sanders. All but one hand went up, Mr. Theodocion said. "My thought was: It's going to be a tough day," he said.
Mr. Sanders has been the voice of the Thomson High School Bulldogs longer than he's been a prosecutor, and he's coached Little League teams for decades. It's hard not to know everyone in the area, Mr. Sanders said. But sometimes it's painful, like the time a murder defendant called him "coach" during a cross-examination.
And there are times when people want help or favors. He tells them, "Dennis their friend wants to help, but Dennis the prosecutor cannot," Mr. Sanders said.
"I tell juries, and I believe, you're not passing judgment on a person, you're passing judgment on a person's actions," he said.
Every day he remembers the admonition of a mentor: "You're no bigger than anyone else; you're just in a big job."
It's rare for Mr. Sanders to pursue the death penalty, but he has two pending capital trials and is prosecuting the mother of two small children who drowned.
It's a heavy workload this summer, and it was weighing him down. He just wanted to rest last weekend, but his wife, Kay, insisted they go early to the Jekyll Island conference. It was obvious Mr. Sanders was taken completely by surprise, Mr. Craig said.
"But he must have some Baptist minister in him," Mr. Craig said.
He recovered in about 10 seconds and gave an inspiring speech about the virtues of being a prosecutor, Mr. Craig said.
Mr. Sanders hadn't planned a life in public service. When he started as an assistant prosecutor, he thought he would do it for a few years and move on, he said.
Now he can't imagine doing anything else - unless voters think he should, Mr. Sanders said.