ATLANTA -- The Georgia Supreme Court unanimously rejected today claims of two homeless Glynn County men who argued that inadequate funding of the state's public-defender system was keeping them from getting a fair trial.
Bernard Henry Robinson and Ralph Woods Sr. are awaiting trial for the 2008 beating, stabbing and shooting death of another homeless man, John Steven Mitchell. Monday's decision means their trial can proceed.
The men argued, through their attorneys, that charges against them should be dropped because they couldn't get a speedy trial as guaranteed by the Constitution, and as a result, homeless witnesses who might have offered helpful testimony have drifted since away.
Robinson and Woods are among four homeless men originally charged with Mitchell's death. The Circuit Defender's Office represented all of them in their preliminary hearing, but that turned into a conflict of interest when two of the codefendants agreed to testify against Robinson and Woods.
Without the funding to operate multiple defenders offices, the circuit isn't able to quickly assign separate attorneys from different offices to indigent defendants in the same trial. Private attorneys must be hired instead.
The nine-month time lag in finding new attorneys was the question before the Supreme Court. Since the state provided the defense attorneys -- as well as the police, prosecutor and judge -- Robinson and Woods' attorneys told the justices that the state is to blame for the lag and that the only remedy would be to drop the charges.
"As the state conceded, a delay of 18 months is presumptively prejudicial," Justice Harold Melton wrote for the court. "However, the reasons can be attributed equally to both the state and the defense. The court concludes that Robinson and Woods never even asserted their right to a speedy trial until shortly before the trial was set to begin, which was nine months after their new lawyers had been appointed."