Two years after the Atlanta spa shootings, Asian American legal advocates help support victims’ families
In the two years since eight people were killed in Atlanta area spas, advocates have stepped up to help the victims’ families navigate the complex legal system.
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is seeking the death penalty and hate crime sentence enhancements against Robert Aaron Long.
Then 21-year-old Long bought a handgun on the afternoon of March 16, 2021. He first stopped in Cherokee County and killed four people. He then drove 30 more miles into Atlanta and killed four more people in Fulton County. Most of them were older Asian women.
Long already pleaded guilty to murder in Cherokee County and was sentenced to four consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole, plus 35 years.
The Fulton case is taking a lot longer.
On a bright October morning, dozens of names crowd a Zoom screen projected next to Fulton County Judge Ural Glanville. They’re the family members of four women who were shot and killed at Gold Spa and Aromatherapy Spa in Atlanta.
“I don’t know if this is appropriate or not, but my name is Elliott Peterson. My mother was one of the victims.”
Peterson’s mom, Yong Ae Yue, was the last person Long killed.
“I just have a question. Could you explain that in layman’s terms … what’s really going on?”
Glanville, who is overseeing the case, tried to answer.
“I’m the referee, so I can’t kind of really overstep the bounds of each side,” he said. “I know you have a victim advocate that the state assigns, and that person might be able to explain to you a little bit about what is going on.”
A victim advocate is a person who walks victims and their families through the lengthy trial period and all the legalese.
“We are there to explain the system to victims just so that they have a clearer understanding of the processes, the different procedures, the events and hearing that happen throughout the criminal justice process,” said Ilona Rolack, a deputy victim witness advocate with the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office. Because of privacy concerns, she can’t talk about specific cases, but she said what she does adds humanity to the legal process.
“Most people would think, oh, what is it to go and rub the back of someone who is experiencing fear or emotional sadness because of their victimhood,” she said. “But for some people, it is everything.”
This case is moving slowly. It’s still in the pre-trial motions phase. Plus, Fulton County is still catching up from COVID delays and an inherited case backlog from the previous district attorney.
And this judge is busy. He’s also handling the organized crime case involving Atlanta rapper Young Thug. This case has already been delayed by that one.
But attorney Taylor Lin says death penalty cases always take a long time.
“We did speak with the victim’s families. And we did explain that, you know, a death penalty case is not your average case,” Lin said. “Someone’s life is on trial.”
Lin is an attorney with Alston & Bird who is working with the families. She’s Taiwanese American. In fact, all the attorneys working with the families are Asian American.
Sarah Lee says that has been crucial in helping people process the crime. She’s another attorney working with the families. While a lot of the broader conversation has been around gun violence, Lee said there’s been a different focus within the Asian community.
“What’s come up more often has been grappling with the objectification of Asian women and grappling with the idea that this was a violent attack on elders,” she said.
There’s currently no future hearing set for the case, but in the meantime, the legal advocates say they will continue to support the families.