By Pat Donahue, Coastal Courier.
The former longtime district attorney for Liberty and Long counties has passed away.
Tom Durden, who served as district attorney for the Atlantic Judicial Circuit, died Thursday.
Durden had been the circuit’s DA since 1998 and did not seek re-election to the post last year. He was sworn in as an assistant district attorney under Dupont Cheney in 1984 and was promoted to chief assistant later that year. The circuit covers six counties - Liberty, Long, Bryan, Evans, McIntosh and Tattnall.
“Tom had such a great reputation as a trial attorney, be it the Tomato Patch Murders or other cases,” said current Atlantic Judicial Circuit District Attorney Billy Joe Nelson. “He enjoyed being in a courtroom and trying cases.”
“He was an outgoing person,” said Melinda Anderson, who just retired as Liberty County’s chief magistrate. “He was caring. He was a good DA.”
When Durden opted not to run again, Nelson, who had been an assistant district attorney under Durden, ran for the office. As an ADA, it’s easy to get focused on just the caseload in front of you, Nelson acknowledged.
“I never fully appreciated how difficult a job Tom had until I stepped into that role,” he said. “The sheer number of law enforcement agencies, county commissions, city councils involved in all six counties is an extremely difficult job.
“I have a lot more respect for what he did on a daily basis,” Nelson continued. “He made it look effortless.”
Durden prosecuted a number of high-profile cases as Atlantic Judicial Circuit DA, from the 1998 Long County case that became known as the “Tomato Patch Murder,” for the suspects burying
the victim and then planting tomatoes over the dirt, and the 2011 case involving the FEAR militia.
It was Durden who was given the Ahmaud Arbery case, and he took it to a Glynn County grand jury for indictment. Eventually, Durden handed the case over to the Cobb County DA, and three men were convicted in a racially-motivated slaying of Arbery.
“He wanted to make sure the right thing was done and the right outcome was achieved,” Nelson said. “By taking that to a grand jury, the people of Glynn County also had a chance to determine the outcome.”
Nelson, whom Durden hired in 2011 and rehired a few years later after Nelson went into private practice, said he picked the veteran prosecutor’s brain on trying cases.
Durden was an assistant district attorney for 14 years before serving as the circuit DA for 24 years.
“I think it can’t be overstated the number of lives he impacted as a prosecutor in the Atlantic Judicial Circuit,” Nelson said.
Durden followed Cheney, a legal and courtroom legend in his own right, and that office has been handed down to Nelson.
“I would be lying if I didn’t say it put some pressure on me,” Nelson said. “Every four years you get a referendum on the job you’re doing. It gives you an idea of the job they did. You want to uphold the legacy they set.”
Beyond the practice of law, Durden also was known to be asked to sing at weddings and funerals.
“Tom had a beautiful voice,” Anderson said. “He could sing a cappella.”
Nelson and Superior Court Judge Paul Rose were talking about Durden after his passing and Rose brought up Durden’s artistic talents.
“He said, ‘if you never got to hear Tom sing, you missed out,’” Nelson recalled Judge Rose telling him.
Durden also played piano and guitar, Nelson added, and he was also a good athlete, having been starting quarterback on his high school team.
“He had a lot of talents people didn’t know about,” Nelson said.
The current Atlantic Judicial Circuit DA will remember his predecessor for many things, but his humanity will be tops among them.
“One of the most important things to remember about Tom is not only was he a great prosecutor and a great trial attorney, he was a good person to a lot of different people,” Nelson said. “A testament to the person he was is he would do everything to help people if he could. That’s the thing I will remember most.”