The judge assigned to preside over a near 5-year-old death penalty case in Augusta has asked the Georgia Supreme Court to do something to end the inordinate delays and ineffectiveness of the capital defender office.
Judge J. David Roper made the plea to the state’s highest court in his mandatory pre-trial report filed Monday in the case of Kelvin Johnson.
Johnson, 29, has pleaded not guilty to charges filed in the Aug. 26, 2009, slaying of 69-year-old Martha Greene and the wounding of her husband, Tilman “T.C.” Greene, during a robbery of their Plantation Road home.
Richmond County sheriff investigators arrested Johnson the day after the attack, a grand jury returned an indictment the following month and the prosecutor filed notice of seeking the death penalty Oct. 30, 2009.
Roper noted in 2012 the two attorneys appointed by the Georgia Capital Defender office to represent Johnson “were not remotely ready for trial.”
Roper then ordered the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council to appear in court to explain why he shouldn’t rule that there was a systemic breakdown in the defense of capital murder cases. The organization responded by appointing two local attorneys to his defense team.
Two more years dragged by before Johnson’s case reached the point the Supreme Court would be asked to determine if one of Roper’s rulings is correct. Once that is decided, Johnson’s case should be ready for trial.
Roper blamed himself for the delay in getting the issue – whether he was correct to allow evidence at trial that DNA tied Johnson to two unrelated burglaries and a rape – to the Supreme Court since Oct. 4.
However, the current system for the defense of capital murder suspects is horrendous, the judge wrote.
“The present capital defender system is denying defendants their right to effective counsel and speedy trial. Trial judges and appellate courts strain to find that delays of four or five years or more are not prejudicial, when in fact they are, to avoid setting a guilty person free,” Roper wrote.
“The public and victims are, likewise, prejudiced because the death penalty system is fraught with frequent and lengthy delays and seemingly endless appeals, undermining confidence in the judicial system. A pool of attorneys defending only capital cases is simply not practicable, efficient or workable.”
The judge cited case law stating the Supreme Court has the power to protect the judiciary and ensure the court system is capable of administering justice in an orderly and efficient manner. Roper asks the court to exercise that power or promulgating rules to ensure justice is served for all participants and the public.