Nearly a year has passed since an Augusta Chronicle investigation reported that many convicted in Richmond County and sentenced to prison had been denied their right to appeal. In that time, the backlog has been cut significantly and several long held are now free.
The Superior Court judges of the Augusta Judicial Circuit vowed to take action to ensure everyone got what the Constitution promises, regardless of their ability to pay.
It's made a difference.
When The Chronicle examined all Richmond County trial convictions over a 10-year period that resulted in lengthy prison sentences, it uncovered 152 people who never got a chance at an appeal.
Today, that number is down to 118. If the people who have been paroled or died since their conviction are subtracted from the total, 56 people remain in prison without benefit of an appellate court ensuring that their trials and sentences were fair, or overturning those deemed unfair.
The judges made further progress in the cases of people languishing without appeals. Attorneys have been drafted and progress made for the first step in the appellate process -- a motion for a new trial -- in 23 more cases.
"It's hard to find people to take them on," Chief Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet said. But members of the Augusta Bar Association have stepped up to volunteer.
They have done so for professional reasons, not profit, Judge Overstreet said.
Of the cases The Chronicle reviewed that have had those motions heard, the judges have granted new trials 11 times.
This month, two defendants convicted in a massive racketeering case were back in court. Before he left the bench Nov. 1, Judge Neal Dickert granted both men new trials. Last week, they pleaded guilty in a plea negotiation that meant their release from prison after seven years.
According to The Chronicle's analysis, Judge Dickert completed everything he could in the post-conviction cases he was assigned in Richmond County Superior Court. Judge Duncan D. Wheale has completed more than the rest of the seated judges.
But the most cases left in legal limbo were tried, sometimes more than a decade ago, by retired judges: William M. Fleming Jr., Bernard J. Mulherin Sr. and Albert M. Pickett.
Senior Judge Fleming topped the category with 14 convictions that have never progressed to even the first step in the appellate process.
Most convictions are affirmed on appeal, but of the near 340 cases reviewed by The Chronicle, relief was granted in more than 20 percent of the cases.
Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
BACKGROUND: At the beginning of 2007, The Augusta Chronicle reported that nearly half of the 339 people convicted over the past decade at trial in Richmond County and sentenced to lengthy prison sentences had never had a chance to appeal.
TOUGH TASK: 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 convicts able to appeal received some kind of relief, from a conviction being reversed to a sentencing reduction. But getting into the appellate courts proved daunting to many.
RESULT: The story stunned many appellate advocates and led the new chief judge, J. Carlisle Overstreet, to work on the list. - 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 newspaper also shared a database with Superior Court judges to provide a list of people who have been unable to get appeals.