The retention of two private attorneys to assist in the death penalty trial of Kelvin Johnson is the beginning of a trend in the Augusta Judicial Circuit.
For the next 12 to 24 months, the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council will appoint local attorneys to future death penalty cases “in an effort to improve the delivery of services,” according to an Aug. 2 letter from Executive Director Travis Sakrison to Chief Judge Carlisle Overstreet.
Monday was scheduled to be Johnson’s third trial date since his indictment in 2009 in the death of Martha Greene. But last month, the third co-counsel appointed to Johnson’s case said he couldn’t be ready for trial. Superior Court Judge David Roper declared that the Georgia Capital Defender Office was “systemically broken” and threatened to remove public defenders from the case.
The office has since contracted seasoned death penalty attorneys Jacque Hawk and Peter Johnson to assist in the case. There was also a meeting in Columbia County involving Public Defender Kate Mason, District Attorney Ashley Wright, Overstreet, standards council Chairman Ron Cross and Sakrison.
In court, Wright classified the meeting as an “airing of grievances” about issues pertaining to local death penalty cases.
Wright said she discussed “my frustration and inability to get cases into a courtroom” for trial and a “lack of consistent representation” by the defenders’ office. She questioned why nothing had changed since Superior Court Judge Daniel Craig chastised the office last summer for long delays in the case of Tony Grubbs.
Instead of starting Johnson’s trial Monday, Roper presented what he viewed as evidence that the system was broken, and the defenders’ office answered his complaints, contending that it would take more funding from the state Legislature to boost the office’s performance.
“The remedy is not in this courtroom,” Hawk said. “We can’t fix what the Legislature has created and not funded.”
After the hearing, Sakrison said several measures were in place to improve the quality of work, specifically in the Augusta circuit. Chief among them was the new policy of hiring local counsel. He also said a regional office was opening in Athens, similar to those in Tifton and Brunswick, to eliminate excessive travel between Atlanta and Augusta.
“Going forward, the plan is to look at effectiveness,” he said.
Wright said her goal is to continue pushing the Johnson case, which is now planned for trial in January. She said local attorneys will have more incentive to perform diligently because they know the judges in this circuit.