State to pay fees for trial

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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.

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Riverman1
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Riverman1 03/10/09 - 06:23 am
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As an aside, understand that

As an aside, understand that the Georgia State Public Defenders Council is made up of distinguished law professors and successful attorneys who serve on the council for free. Also, realize the Georgia State Public Defenders agency was created to save the state money with indigent defense which it has done. Their attorneys are not in it for the money because their salaries are low. They are usually interested in criminal law and doing it for experience or what have you. They saved the state over $50 million last year in fees while only being given $14 million to run their agency. The legislature, in reaction to the Nichols' trial, is misguided to cut their funding. If we go back to private attorneys submitting bills to the state, as happened in this case, the state will be out tens of millions.

oneconservativetoanother
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oneconservativetoanother 03/10/09 - 09:00 am
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Riverman1 is right. Under

Riverman1 is right. Under the old system, it was bread and butter for the lattorneys that needed to make a buck. What we have now is the combined experience of many professional attorneys and staff that are working for the common good not the all mighty dollar. The Public Defender's Office statewide budget was cut and so were the raises. This circuit has effectively and effieienctly defended those who cannot afford an attorney. Thank you for all you and for all of those who turn to the defense council for assistance in protecting your rights under the constitution. Everyone is equal not just those who can afford an attorney. Sure, the state funds will pay for those contract attorneys but they will not forget it! There is no gravy train for the greedy.

peonynut
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peonynut 03/10/09 - 09:14 am
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Indigent? I think not. What

Indigent? I think not. What about all that drug money he accumulated over his career?

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