ATLANTA (AP) — A homeless man charged with starting the fire that destroyed a section of Interstate 85 in Atlanta is being made a “scapegoat” by the state, which shouldn’t have stored flammable material under a highway, his lawyers said.
Basil Eleby will plead not guilty on Monday to charges of arson and criminal damage to property, they said.
Police say Eleby was smoking crack cocaine under the overpass and deliberately started a conflagration.
But Eleby’s supporters say the Georgia Department of Transportation should be held accountable for storing construction materials under the highway.
GDOT has said the materials — fiber-optic cables on wooden spools — were left over from a project to install cameras along the highway, and had been secured inside a fence.
Those materials burned so hot that the cement and steel overpass crumbled, snarling traffic in the already congested city. Reconstruction is expected to cost millions and take until at least mid-June.
Eleby’s supporters held a news conference Friday urging people not to rush to judgment.
“This is a railroading on steroids. It really is,” attorney Mawuli Davis said, to suggest that Eleby “is responsible for all of this devastation.”
More than a dozen people and social justice organizations have formed the Community Coalition in Support of Basil Eleby to advocate for his constitutional rights.
Georgia NAACP President Francys Johnson said the coalition hopes to “prevent another man from being tried unfairly and punished unjustly.”
“When you think about the quality of American justice,” Johnson said, “the quality of that system should be measured not by how society treats its most affluent.”
The coalition has asked witnesses to call 1-800-237-6072 or use www.basileleby.org to bring forward any relevant information. Lawyers also have asked transportation workers to share information.
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