Burke County won't have to pay Palmer legal bills, court rules

ATLANTA -- The Supreme Court of Georgia has unanimously upheld a judge’s order in a Burke County case holding the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council in contempt for refusing to pay the cost of representing a man sentenced to death.


In the opinion written by Justice George Carley, the high court has ruled that the state council, not the county, is responsible under Georgia law for bearing the cost of defending certain indigent death penalty cases.

The case stems from the 1995 indictment of Willie Palmer, who was charged with murder, convicted and sentenced to death. The state Supreme Court upheld his convictions, and Mr. Palmer then filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus – a civil proceeding available to already convicted prisoners allowing them to challenge their case in the county where they’re in prison.

In March 2005, the habeas court ordered a new trial, and the Supreme Court upheld that ruling.

The same year, the Georgia Indigent Defense Act took effect, replacing the piecemeal system for providing indigent defense with a state-funded system to pay lawyers who represent poor people sentenced to death.

Michael Mears, then director of the newly created Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, assured the trial court that it would secure counsel for Mr. Palmer and cover attorneys’ fees and expenses.

In 2007, Mr. Palmer was again convicted and sentenced to death, but when the attorneys submitted their bill for $68,946.61 to the council, the state agency refused to pay, on the grounds that the case dated back to 1995 when the notice of death penalty was first filed, and it was therefore Burke County’s responsibility to pay.

In 2007, the trial court ordered the council to pay attorneys’ fees and expenses. After the council failed to comply, the trial court held it in contempt.

“[B]oth the statutory language of the act and its underlying policy compel the conclusion that, in this case, the council is responsible for payment of indigent defense costs…,” today’s opinion says. "Nothing in the law “required that the council fund representation only for defendants who are indicted or sent a death penalty notice after a certain date.”

Furthermore, the opinion says, death penalty cases in which a previous conviction or sentence is overturned, such as Mr. Palmer’s, “stand on an entirely different footing than those which have not yet resulted in any conviction.”

“The case becomes essentially indistinguishable from a newly pending case,” the opinion stated.



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