The Georgia Court of Appeals agreed with an Augusta man recently that he was unfairly convicted after a judge found he had waived his right to an attorney at trial.
The appeals court reversed Bernard Lee Raines' robbery conviction Monday, and his 10-year prison sentence was voided.
Mr. Raines, 38, represented himself at his July 1997 trial in Richmond County Superior Court. After he appeared in court without an attorney, Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet questioned Mr. Raines about an attorney, and Mr. Raines replied that he could not afford to hire one.
Judge Overstreet warned Mr. Raines that he did not know trial procedures; if convicted, he could be sent to jail. Judge Overstreet adopted the conclusion of the local Indigent Defense Office that Mr. Raines was not qualified to receive a court-appointed attorney.
"I think the bottom line is ... the appeals court always want you to appoint an attorney," Judge Overstreet said Friday. He added that he probably always will have an attorney sit with and advise a defendant who chooses to represent himself.
"That's certainly the safest course of action," said Michael Shapiro, executive director of the Georgia Indigent Defense Counsel. A judge always has the discretion to appoint counsel, regardless of questions about indigency, if the judge finds it would further the merits of justice, Mr. Shapiro said.
The Court of Appeals decision also points out that judges should ask a defendant directly about his possible financial qualification for an appointed attorney, Mr. Shapiro said.
The opinion reads in part: "Moreover, given (Mr.) Raines' repeated assertions that he could not afford an attorney, it is likely he chose to represent himself `because he believed he did not qualify for a court-appointed attorney and he could not afford to retain a private attorney."'
After Mr. Raines' conviction, Judge Overstreet sentenced him to serve 10 years in prison.
Augusta attorney George Bush represented Mr. Raines in his motions for a new trial and for a reduction in sentence. Mr. Bush argued that Mr. Raines had no prior felony conviction. After Judge Overstreet denied those motions, Mr. Bush filed Mr. Raines' appeal.
Mr. Raines had been convicted of robbery for entering the NationsBank on Wheeler Road on Jan. 6, 1995 and demanding cash from a teller. The bank employee testified at his trial that Mr. Raines, whom she identified as the robber, acted as though he might have a weapon, although he never displayed one.
District Attorney Danny Craig said his office will not seek to overturn the appeals court decision in Mr. Raines' case. Mr. Raines will be returned to Richmond County Superior Court to stand trial again on the robbery charge, Mr. Craig said.
Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226.