Capital defenders to stay on Kelvin Johnson case

2 local lawyers join defense in murder trial

The Georgia Capital Defender office will continue representing Kelvin Johnson, in large part because the Atlanta office has contracted two local private attorneys for help, a judge ruled Monday.

Superior Court Judge David Roper’s decision came after an hours-long referendum on the ability of the defender’s office to juggle multiple death penalty cases around the state. Monday was supposed to be Johnson’s third trial date since his indictment in 2009 on charges related to the death of Martha Greene.

But it became a hearing when Johnson’s third co-counsel announced four weeks ago he couldn’t be ready for trial and Roper declared the Georgia office that protects indigent clients from the death penalty “systemically broken.”

Between July 9 and Monday, the defender’s office contracted with two seasoned death penalty attorneys in Augusta: Peter Johnson and Jacque Hawk. It was also a chance for Roper to create a lengthy document introduced as evidence of what he found “relevant” and “disturbing” about the defender’s inability to bring cases to trial.

By setting the cases of Johnson, Adrian Hargrove and Tony Grubbs side-by-side, Roper showed that defenders used nearly identical language in requesting continuances and delays. Quotes included defenders stating they were “entirely unprepared for trial,” “unable to prepare simultaneously” for trials and “yet to complete the minimal amount of preparation.” In each of those cases, defenders stated in court documents they were preparing for death penalty trials in other parts of the state.

District Attorney Ashley Wright also weighed in, questioning whether the delays in the case were an institutional failure or the incompetence of individual attorneys.

“It might need to be a (State Bar of Georgia) issue,” Wright said. “If that fire gets lit, maybe we’ll see people dancing to it.”

It was Hawk who made several arguments for the defender’s office and his new client, Johnson. The defender’s office has no control over the influx of death penalty cases from around the state. It takes those cases and spreads them out among the limited number of defenders, who “are dealing with it in amazing fashion,” Hawk said. It’s better that the defenders are open about the caseload and the pressures they are under rather than hiding them and having to retry cases on appeal, Hawk said.

“We can’t make them superhuman,” Hawk said. “I don’t know how they’re going to do better than that with what they’ve got.”

Roper made his decision based on the assurances from the defender’s office over the past four weeks and the retention of Hawk and Johnson. But he made it clear the past will remain fresh in his mind.

“It doesn’t diminish what’s happened to this point,” he said.

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