State to pay fees for trial

Burke County Administrator Merv Waldrop gave a sigh of relief Monday when the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that the state, not his county, should pay legal fees for Willie Palmer's death penalty trial.

Mr. Palmer was convicted of murder in September 1997 for killing his estranged wife, Brenda Jenkins Palmer, and stepdaughter Christine Jenkins.

The bills for Mr. Palmer's defense totaled $68,947. In Burke County that would have translated into several county jobs, Mr. Waldrop said.

In a unanimous decision the high court ruled that the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council must pay Mr. Palmer's legal bills. The statewide agency could not set a cutoff date for taking financial responsibility for a death penalty case, the ruling said.

The council maintained it wasn't responsible for Mr. Palmer's appeal because he was originally convicted before the statewide agency was created. Judge William M. Fleming Jr. disagreed and held the agency in contempt of court in 2007 when it refused his order to pay Mr. Palmer's legal bills.

Attorneys Michael Garrett and Randolph Frails never asked Burke County to pay the bills. The council's director assured the attorneys the council would pay the bills.

Jack Long, an Augusta attorney, volunteered to represent Mr. Garrett and Mr. Frails and argued successfully that the state was responsible for the fees.

When the new public defender system was created, the state committed to contributing more for indigent defense in general and capital murder defense costs specifically. The money comes from court fees, not taxes.

Mr. Long has complained there is money to accomplish these goals but that the General Assembly won't let the funds flow to the council. The legislators have cut the council's budget the past few years, leaving $14 million in court fees unused, he said.

Mr. Palmer's 1997 conviction and death sentence were reversed in March 2005. The trial was flawed because payment to a crucial witness was concealed from the attorneys. Mr. Palmer was tried, convicted and sentenced to death again a decade later.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com.