Lack of Funding For Georgia Public Defender System May Be Causing Injustice

Attorneys who represent indigent defendants for capital cases in the Georgia criminal justice system say that a lack of funding for the public defender system may be creating rights violations. The United States Supreme Court has also taken a look at the terrain in Georgia and may review a capital case that illustrates the tensions between budgetary constraints and individual rights.

Recently, the Georgia Supreme Court has been chastised for not closely reviewing death penalty cases. Over the last year, the US Supreme Court has intervened in four Georgia death penalty cases. It may decide to intervene in a fifth case where the defendant claims his right to a speedy trial has been violated. The defendant is accused of killing an elderly woman during a robbery and claims that he has sat in jail for two years without a lawyer.

Prosecutors challenge the defendant’s assertion and explain the defendant was never without representation but do acknowledge the defendant’s lawyers were limited by budgetary constraints.

Originally, two private lawyers were appointed to represent the defendant. The state could not afford them. Consequently, a judge ordered two public defenders to take the case despite their large caseloads. The defendant, who has issues with mental health, declined to work with the public defenders. Appellate lawyers from the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) took up the case and represent the defendant for free. They claim his right to a speedy trial has been violated.

In March, the Georgia Supreme Court denied the speedy trial appeal and SCHR lawyers appealed to the US Supreme Court. SCHR lawyers argue that a lack of funding caused the violation explaining that the Georgia Legislature has moved $30 million derived from court fees and fines from the public defender system to general fund for the state.

The US Supreme Court sent a warning to the Georgia Supreme Court regarding its review of capital cases in October 2008. Justice John Paul Stevens criticized the state supreme court’s effort as “utterly perfunctory.” The US Supreme Court will decide whether it will intervene on the most recent case on September 27.

Source: Associated Press, “Ga. Capital Cases End Up in US Supreme Court,” Greg Bluestein, September 18, 2010