Alarmed by the defense work for an Augusta man facing a death penalty trial and by the defendant's plea for help, the director of the state's Multicounty Public Defender Office has taken a rare step by agreeing to represent Edward Hawthorne Jr.
Mr. Hawthorne, 32, is to stand trial May 11 on capital murder charges in the robbery and slaying of James Yuan, 52, of Martinez. Mr. Yuan was found in his truck stabbed more than 150 times Oct. 18, 1996.
"I think cases like this (Mr. Hawthorne's) is exactly what we're supposed to be doing," said Michael Mears, director of the Multicounty Public Defender Office.
The office was established in 1992 to monitor, assist and train defense lawyers who handle death penalty cases and represent defendants in Georgia. A large part of the argument that convinced the General Assembly of the need for such an office was that it could help prevent the reversal of death sentences based on ineffective assistance of counsel, Mr. Mears said.
Mr. Mears has never felt the need to step into an Augusta Judicial Circuit death penalty case before now, he said, and has done so only twice before in the approximately 400 capital murder cases prosecuted in Georgia since 1995.
Mr. Hawthorne is one of about 122 people currently facing capital murder charges in Georgia, Mr. Mears said.
"Usually we can resolve our concerns by staying in the background and offering assistance (to defense attorneys in death penalty cases). That's not possible in Mr. Hawthorne's case," Mr. Mears said.
Mr. Mears spent time last week reviewing Mr. Hawthorne's case and that of another man facing capital murder charges in Burke County. He did so at the request of Michael Shapiro, executive director of the statewide Georgia Indigent Defense Council.
Mr. Shapiro has put the local Indigent Defense Committee on notice that he is worried about the quality of representation for poor people in the Augusta Judicial Circuit, specifically for poor people facing death penalty trials. If the council members share Mr. Shapiro's concerns, it may mean the loss of about $200,000 in state funds.
Mr. Mears said he decided to formally enter Mr. Hawthorne's case after his investigation last week, a plea for help from the defendant and after receiving several calls from people also concerned about the man's fate.
Mr. Hawthorne is currently represented by attorneys David Weber and Sam Cruse, neither of whom returned a telephone message seeking comment. Since October, Mr. Hawthorne has been telling Superior Court Judge Bernard J. Mulherin Sr. that he wasn't satisfied with his attorneys. Judge Mulherin held an ex-parte hearing -- a private hearing with only the defense attorneys and Mr. Hawthorne -- in February to hear Mr. Hawthorne out. At the conclusion of the hearing, Mr. Weber said he and Mr. Cruse were still representing Mr. Hawthorne, and the defendant was still unsatisfied.
Mr. Hawthorne sent a letter he wrote this week to the Richmond County Superior Court Clerk's Office. In addition to a complaint that Mr. Cruse wasn't doing anything to represent him, Mr. Hawthorne wrote that he was worried the controversy surrounding Mr. Cruse and his position on the local Indigent Defense Committee could be detrimental to his trial.
Mr. Cruse turned in a letter of resignation from the Indigent Defense Committee effective June 1 -- more than six months after commissioners in Richmond, Columbia and Burke counties voted to rescind his appointment. The counties jointly appoint two members to the committee, which oversees the taxpayer-funded agency.
County commissioners voted to replace Mr. Cruse after learning the committee set up a secret bank account to give staff raises; that Mr. Cruse and other lawyers on the committee represented indigent-defense clients; that Mr. Cruse had been appointed to more murder cases in 1997 than any other area attorney; and that Mr. Cruse occasionally billed Indigent Defense for work he did not do. In 1997, Mr. Cruse was chairman of the committee.
In addition to Mr. Hawthorne's case, Mr. Mears also looked into the Burke County Superior Court capital murder case against three men accused of taking part in a murder-for-hire slaying. Specifically Mr. Mears was asked to review the case of Charles Reeves, who is represented by Mr. Cruse.
Mr. Mears said Thursday he hasn't reached a decision about Mr. Reeves' case and will wait to see what happens next in Burke County. A hearing in the case is scheduled for Tuesday. Attorneys representing Mr. Reeves' two co-defendants will argue to the judge that Mr. Cruse should be disqualified, according to motions filed in the case.