Sunday, 25 March 2007

Indigent Defense in Georgia

Indigent Defense in Georgia

The New York Times today reports on the impact one high visibility case is having on Georgia's entire indigent defense system "Georgia Murder Case's Cost Saps Public Defense System."

A high-profile multiple-murder case has drained the budget of Georgia’s public defender system and brought all but a handful of its 72 capital cases to a standstill.

The case involves a rape suspect, Brian Nichols, who is accused of escaping from a courthouse here in 2005 after overpowering a guard, taking her gun and then killing a judge, a court reporter and two other people before he was recaptured.

Prosecutors say the evidence against Mr. Nichols, including a videotaped confession, is overwhelming. But the case has cost the public defender system $1.4 million, and, on Wednesday, the judge in the case postponed jury selection until Sept. 10.

The judge, Hilton Fuller, said the “issue of funding” and the “complexities of this case have prevented an orderly and uninterrupted” method of proceeding.

The Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, which manages the public defender system, has run out of money. That means it can no longer pay the three private lawyers on Mr. Nichols’s defense team. Judge Fuller said the council had apparently done all it could to pay expenses in the case, but he added, “We cannot expect it to provide funds that don’t exist.”

The situation has become a political issue as the legislature weighs a request for $9.5 million to keep the public defender system solvent through the fiscal year, which ends in June.

The case “is testing the will of the state of Georgia with regard to whether or not the death penalty is worth the amount it costs,” said Mike Mears, director of the standards council.

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