The speaker who represented victims at the victims’ memorial ceremony at the Camden County Courthouse on Friday is still waiting for his day in court.
Justin Conway of Woodbine was invited to speak at the annual event hosted by the Camden County District Attorney’s Office to honor local crime victims, particularly those who lost their lives at the hands of another. The audience of about 40 included victims and their family members, victims’ advocates, court workers, law enforcement officers and elected officials. All three local mayors and a county representative presented proclamations recognizing it as National Victims’ Rights Awareness Week.
“For a long time, I looked for that justice and I looked for those rights at the bottom of a bottle, in deep dark holes of depression. I looked to law enforcement. I looked to my attorneys,” said Conway to the crowd assembled in the courthouse atrium. “And the reality is that justice and those rights came to me from my higher power and myself, and my willingness to do the next right thing.”
For Conway and six other adult men, getting their day in court meant filing a civil lawsuit against their alleged abuser. According to the complaint filed in Camden County Superior Court, the victims claim they suffered repeated sexual abuse at the hands of their karate instructor Craig Peeples, who owns and operates Pak’s Karate in Kingsland. Peeples has repeatedly denied accusations that he harmed students and has filed a countersuit for defamation of character.
During the ceremony, Conway talked about how he and other victims in his case lost their jobs, their marriages and themselves after stepping forward to tell the truth and yet for a long time, the court system offered them no avenues for seeking justice.
After law enforcement investigated the case in 2014, district attorney Jackie Johnson wrote in a letter that there was enough evidence to present the case to a grand jury. However, Johnson explained in the letter that she was barred from doing so because of the state’s statute of limitations on sex crimes.
“Because it had been too long, I would never face my perpetrator in court,” Conway said. “I refused to take that as an answer … because without access to a court of law, it’s just somebody saying something about somebody else.”
So Conway enlisted the help of his state legislator, Jason Spencer, and they fought in Atlanta for the right of victims to be heard by a judge and jury. The Hidden Predator Act was signed into law last year.
Although they were victorious in improving victims’ access to the court system, Conway said he is still fighting to get justice in his own case, which has not yet gone to trial.
“I’ve got some community support now. I even won an award presented by CNN and a foundation out of Atlanta for the work that we had done to pass the Hidden Predator Act,” he said to the crowd at the ceremony. “And yet, sitting at a stoplight in Camden County, I had to look eye to eye with the man who murdered my childhood.”
Conway said he also would continue to fight for the survivors of child sex crimes and offer them support. Conway said people often ask him why he doesn’t just “get over” what happened to him and move on.
“My answer is I have moved on. I’ve moved on to protecting other children. I have moved on to shedding the shame that I felt for so long. … And that, to me, is justice,” he said.
Conway said victims inspire other victims by simply picking up the pieces and doing the “next right thing.”
Also addressing the crowd were Johnson, victims’ advocate Sandee Ortega, assistant district attorney Katie Groper, St. Marys Mayor John Morrissey, Kingsland Mayor Kenneth Smith, Woodbine Mayor Steve Parrott, mental health provider Dale Blanton.
Chief magistrate judge Jennifer Lewis read the names of all of the Camden County victims who had died over the years. Court workers passed out flowers to the family members who attended the ceremony.
“It’s a really emotional time for us because … we form lifelong bonds with people who have been brought into the criminal justice system and our lives through horrible events,” Johnson said. “Coming back every year and seeing all of you all is humbling to us and reminds us of why we are here and why we do the work that we do.”