Originally created 08/15/98

Indigent defense funds get approval



ATLANTA -- An Augusta delegation could have saved the angry speeches Friday as the statewide Indigent Defense Council released funds to help pay legal bills for the poor in the Augusta Judicial Circuit.

Without a request to withhold the Augusta funding from Michael Mears, director of the statewide MultiCounty Public Defender Office, or Michael Shapiro, the council's executive director, council members voted Friday to approve a $4 million distribution to all 143 participating counties, including a total of $136,004 for Richmond, Columbia and Burke counties.

"I don't want the fight to be over the bodies of those who won't have counsel to represent them (if the council withholds funds)," Mr. Mears said.

Prepared for a battle Friday, Augusta county attorney Jim Wall complained that someone should have told them that before they drove all the way to Atlanta through rainstorms.

Mr. Wall traveled to Atlanta with Eddie Goode, Augusta Judicial Circuit Indigent Defense Committee Coordinator, and Committee Chairman Richard Dunstan.

"I cannot begin to tell you how much I resent this letter," Mr. Dunstan said of Mr. Mears' written request that Mr. Shapiro recommend funding be cut off for the Augusta Judicial Circuit.

"I resent this letter ... I resent being here. The real problem is Mr. Mears and the scope of his authority. I think you need to address this problem before you come picking on us," said Mr. Dunstan, who insisted the Augusta Judicial Circuit counties deserved their fair share of the money, which amounts to 15 percent of the anticipated indigent defense bill.

Mr. Dunstan's fury was directed at a portion of Mr. Mears' letter to Mr. Shapiro, which Mr. Dunstan read Friday: "It is clear to me that the local Indigent Defense Committee has become politicized and aligned with factions within the county, including the prosecutor's office and the judicial officers of the county, to the extent that the indigent defendants facing death penalty trials cannot expect to receive effective representation ..."

Mr. Dunstan called the letter libelous and ludicrous and called Mr. Mears a "roving interloper."

Mr. Wall said the threat of no funding was nothing short of blackmail, and pointless at that, because the counties -- which have the legal obligation to pay for indigent legal defense -- cannot tell Superior Court judges what to do.

Mr. Mears' problems lie with the judges -- who insist Mr. Mears' office cannot represent anyone facing capital murder charges unless the judges ask first -- and he should appeal to higher courts, Mr. Wall said.

Mr. Shapiro had recommended that the council withhold Richmond County's funds, $99,070, because of a ruling by Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet.

While he allowed Mr. Mears to remain in a Richmond County death penalty case, Judge Overstreet said all trial expenses would be the responsibility of Mr. Mears' office.

"I'm sorry you take offense," Mr. Mears said. "But I stand by those allegations. It's an attack on the way the system operates in Augusta."

As director of the MultiCounty Public Defender Office -- the statewide agency charged under Georgia law with representing poor people facing capital murder charges, and training and assisting defense attorneys for death penalty cases -- Mr. Mears is responsible for raising questions about legal representation in such cases, he said.

There are serious problems in the Augusta Judicial Circuit that must be addressed, questions which begin with the inordinate control Superior Court Chief Judge William M. Fleming Jr. exerts, Mr. Mears said.

"I work for the council. I don't work for Richmond County and perhaps therein lies the problem because I don't have to answer to Judge Fleming," Mr. Mears said.

Several council members Friday voiced their support of Mr. Mears, and asked Mr. Mears what he thought they should do about the concerns regarding the Augusta Judicial Circuit. Mr. Mears asked the council to delay any action at this time.

Next month, the Georgia Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a civil case Mr. Mears and attorney Terry Jackson have filed on behalf of capital murder defendant William Lumpkin of Augusta.

The lawsuit challenges the way the Augusta Judicial Circuit's Superior Court judges conduct court business.

Council members asked Mr. Mears and Mr. Shapiro to continue monitoring the situation in the Augusta Judicial Circuit and report back at the next meeting, Nov. 13.