Shocked by the large number of poor people effectively locked out of the appellate process, the Augusta Judicial Circuit judges are opening the court doors.
The Superior Court judges simply didn't know about the problem, Chief Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet said. With thousands of cases every year, the judges had no way to flag the cases that needed herding into the appellate courts.
An investigation by The Augusta Chronicle revealed that in Richmond County alone, nearly half of the 339 people convicted at trial and sentenced to lengthy prison sentences in the past 10 years have never had an appeal.
Those with money to hire private attorneys and those with diligent appointed counsel have been able to negotiate the appellate process.
According to the newspaper's investigation, about one in five received some kind of relief, from a conviction being reversed to a sentencing reduction.
But getting into the appellate courts proves daunting to many.
The Chronicle shared a database with the Superior Court judges to provide a list of people who have been unable to get appeals. The database was prepared by using Richmond County Superior Court records, and the results were presented in a Feb. 18 article in The Chronicle.
Judge Overstreet said each of the five judges presiding over criminal cases will ensure everyone on the list has representation and that the appellate process begins. The judges also are looking at computer programs that could help eliminate the problem for future cases, he said.
Duncan D. Wheale and Neal W. Dickert, the two newest judges to preside over criminal cases, have an advantage over their brethren.
Last year they took over the post-conviction cases tried by two retired Superior Court judges.
With a list of those cases prepared by the clerk's office, they began drafting attorneys and setting the appellate process in motion.
Judge Dickert inherited a massive job in one case, the post-conviction hearings for six men convicted of racketeering. The crime included three homicides, one of which was the June 1998 killing of Sam's Club manager David Holt. The trial took weeks to try in 2001.
For the first step in the appellate process - the motion for a new trial - Judge Dickert said he has set aside a week in May for the hearing, which will involve prosecutors, six different appellate defense attorneys and thousands of pages of documents.
Judge Wheale said he has identified all of his cases that need appeals and ensured attorneys are actively working on those cases. He also pulled some cases that haven't been assigned to him but might have fallen between the cracks because the trial judges have retired.
"The bar (the local attorney association) has been very active, very helpful," Judge Wheale said.
Attorneys such as Amy Snell, whose practice usually is confined to civil cases, stepped up to volunteer last year. She convinced Judge Wheale that one of her new clients, Charles Davis, was unfairly denied the use of self-defense at his trial seven years ago. The judge granted Mr. Davis a new trial.
Judge Wheale said he also is requiring a transcript of every trial and every sentencing hearing. The law actually demands it, he said.
"Unfortunately, in many of these old cases there isn't a transcript," he said.
Without a transcript, the law mandates a new trial. That's what happened in the case of Pheotis Upshaw, accused of murder in the March 1998 fatal shooting of Ephilleus Harris.
Mr. Upshaw was convicted in March 1999, but the transcript was lost and he was granted a new trial.
At his new trial in January, a jury acquitted Mr. Upshaw. He was freed after nine years behind bars.
Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.