Capital defenders to stay on Kelvin Johnson case

2 local lawyers join defense in murder trial

Monday, Aug 6, 2012 2:43 PM
Last updated 7:39 PM
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Johnson, accused of murder in the death of Martha Greene, speaks with attorney Teri Thompson of the Georgia Capital Defender Office during a hearing to determine if the office will continue defending him.  EMILY ROSE BENNETT/STAFF
EMILY ROSE BENNETT/STAFF
Johnson, accused of murder in the death of Martha Greene, speaks with attorney Teri Thompson of the Georgia Capital Defender Office during a hearing to determine if the office will continue defending him.

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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Little Lamb
45282
Points
Little Lamb 08/06/12 - 02:56 pm
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Good for you, Judge Roper

Call the offending lawyers out by name, and begin the process to shut down the Georgia Capital Defender office.

billcass
761
Points
billcass 08/06/12 - 03:25 pm
2
1
I disagree

I disagree with Judge Roper's reasoning. He seems to be saying that the Capital Defender's use the same template for their motions. Of course they do. Would he rather that they draft every motion from scratch, taking even more time? I don't know of a lawyer who doesn't use the same template for similar motions in similar cases. It saves time and money. The problem here is not with the Capital Defender's Office, but with the legislature for not funding them. If you want to have a death penalty, you have to be prepared to spend the money to use it.

Riverman1
82254
Points
Riverman1 08/06/12 - 06:43 pm
2
1
Who Will Pay?

Who is going to pay for the private attorneys he appoints? What murder trial attorney is not going to charge a huge sum to handle such a case? You can't make attorneys take a case.

Little Lamb
45282
Points
Little Lamb 08/06/12 - 04:49 pm
0
0
Suspect

I watched Suspect yesterday, the movie with Cher and Liam Neeson. The judge in that movie ordered Cher to take Liam Neeson's murder trial as a public defender case and I think she was a private lawyer with a firm that provided that service occasionally.

Craig Spinks
817
Points
Craig Spinks 08/06/12 - 06:07 pm
1
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KUDOS,

Judge Roper,

for reminding us that the second virtue emblazened upon The Great Seal of The State of Georgia is "Justice."

Riverman1
82254
Points
Riverman1 08/06/12 - 06:45 pm
0
0
I suppose it's possible Judge

I suppose it's possible Judge Roper could appoint an attorney against his will once although I really doubt it. You certainly can't do it all the time. So we're back to the bottom line of funding the public defenders.

zippy
250
Points
zippy 08/07/12 - 08:19 am
0
0
I can see a little of both

I can see a little of both sides of this. Sure justice is the goal, but that works two ways. justice is not always rushing into the courtroom swiftly with a heavy hand. In the eyes of the victim, that is justice, but that is also how we find ourselves having to explain how a missed DNA sample found ten years later totally disproves the case. One thing you have to understand in these cases. first, when a crime is committed, the sheriff investigates, and when he believes he has all the evidence, he turns it over to the DA. they review the evidence, prepare their case for the grand jury and then get the indictment. once they have that, they set it for arraignement. it is THEN that the defence begins to work on the file. the state is already light years ahead of the game and could probably try the caset that day if the witnesses were available. therefore, it is not unreasonable to allow some time to independently investigate the case from the defendant's point of view. on the other hand, if the attorneys are so overloaded that they can only prepare their cases in small amounts instead of focusing on one and getting it tried, then it is an institutional failure. One thing is for sure, if the state is going to have a public defenders office, they are going to have to pay to properly staff it. one problem I see is (at least in Augusta), there are so many different judges and courtrooms going at the same time, it is difficult for attorneys to actually be productive. they spend a lot of time appearing in court to "announce" the status of the case which ends up taking a half a day without anything productive happening. just like in this case, they spent an entire day in court discussing why they are not ready for trial. imagine where they would be if they spent that day interviewing witnesses.

realitycheck09
307
Points
realitycheck09 08/07/12 - 07:22 pm
0
0
The honest to God's truth is

The honest to God's truth is that each side of this is actually correct. (1) There is a real problem with funding of the defense of death penalty cases (especially when you consider that there's never a problem funding those cases prosecutions). Retaining two private attorneys is only going to exacerbate that problem.

But (2) there also is a real systematic effort to drag out capital cases and make them so expensive that the State no longer wants to pursue them.

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