Defense's pay battle goes back to court

A Burke County death penalty case will take center stage Monday in a battle over indigent defense payments.

 

The Georgia Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that began when two Augusta attorneys tried to get paid for their legal work defending Willie Palmer, who murdered his estranged wife, Brenda Jenkins Palmer, and his 15-year-old stepdaughter, Christine, on Sept. 10, 1995.

Augusta Judicial Circuit Senior Judge William M. Fleming Jr. ordered the statewide public defender system to pay Mr. Palmer's attorneys in 2007, but the agency refused.

On Monday, attorneys for Michael Garrett and Randolph Frails and the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council will argue over who is responsible for paying the bills for Mr. Palmer's defense.

Mr. Palmer's case has already taken a contorted path through the justice system. After a mistrial aborted his first trial, a jury convicted and sentenced him to death in 1999. His conviction was overturned when appellate courts learned the Georgia Bureau of Investigation kept secret the fact it paid a major witness against Mr. Palmer. While Mr. Palmer's case made its way through appellate courts, legislators faced a critical report about the defense of poor people in Georgia.

Legislators voted to created a statewide public defender system. The public defender council was created in January 2005, several weeks before Mr. Palmer's conviction was overturned.

The system's director in 2005 drafted Mr. Garrett and Mr. Frails to defend Mr. Palmer. Two years later, Mr. Palmer was convicted at his retrial and sentenced to death.

Mr. Garret and Mr. Frails submitted their bill of $68,947 to the council, which refused to pay, insisting the cost of any case indicted before the system was created should be the county's responsibility.

The council -- whose funding was slashed by state legislators in reaction to a multimillion-dollar defense bill for Fulton County courthouse killer Brian Nichols -- insists it will go bankrupt if it has to pay for every death penalty defense. The council contends it is "threatened with financial jeopardy" if forced to pay Mr. Palmer's attorneys, according to a synopsis of the council's position prepared by the Georgia Supreme Court press office.

The attorneys contend they were promised payment by the council. The defense costs in capital cases is paid by the state and the council shouldn't be allowed to set an arbitrary cutoff date, they contend.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com.

ABOUT THE COUNCIL

The Georgia Public Defender Standards Council is an independent agency with the mission of ensuring every person facing a felony criminal charge has legal representation regardless of his or her ability to pay. The council serves as the administrative support for the 49 circuit public defender offices throughout the state.