Georgia's public defender system sued for lack of lawyers

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ATLANTA — Georgia's struggling public defender system was slapped with a lawsuit Tuesday that seeks to halt prosecutions in hundreds of northeast Georgia cases until lawyers are provided to represent the defendants.

It's one of the stiffest legal challenges yet to the system, which has lost support from powerful state legislators and faces mounting funding problems amid the economic downturn.

The lawsuit, filed in Elbert County Superior Court, contends that about 300 defendants who can't afford their own lawyers are "left to languish in jail" because they are not provided legal counsel. Some have been without lawyers for six months, it says.

"We have a stadium's worth of folks in North Georgia with no attorneys to defend them," said Gerry Weber, an attorney for the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, which filed the lawsuit. "Many of these people sit in jail, presumed innocent, penniless and lawyerless."

The public defender system has been plagued by funding problems since it was launched in 2005. Hefty defense bills for the trial of Atlanta courthouse gunman Brian Nichols — which may have topped $2 million — became a rallying cry for deep cuts and more legislative control over the system even before the state was slammed with a $2.6 billion deficit.

System director Mack Crawford did not return repeated phone calls. But he has said the agency is doing its best to cope with budget cuts that eliminated around 10 percent of its budget.

The lawsuit targets so-called "conflict" cases that involve multiple defendants. In such cases, state-funded public defenders can only represent one person, so private attorneys are hired to represent the co-defendants.

But the public defender system cut off much of the funding for three attorneys who handled conflict cases for the Northern Judicial Circuit, spanning five counties in northeast Georgia.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of five defendants, claims that the funding shortfall forced some defendants to wait in jails for months and show up to plea hearings without attorneys.

One of the plaintiffs, Chris Cantwell, said he sat in the Elbert County Jail between November 26 and February 10 while he waited for an attorney to defend him on burglary and theft charges. Eventually, he said a judge encouraged him to enter a "not guilty" plea although he still didn't have a lawyer.

While he sat in jail, he said he lost his job, his apartment and his dog, and missed his grandfather's funeral. He also said $1,400 of equipment was stolen from his home.

"I lost too much," he said. "If I was only in jail for one month, I wouldn't have lost my apartment, the things that were stolen from me, and I would have been able to go to my grandfather's funeral.

"I want there to be money in the budget so no one else has to go through what I went through."

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jack
10
Points
jack 04/08/09 - 10:07 am
0
0

Why whine over a bunch of

Why whine over a bunch of criminals lounging in jail? Were they not criminals, they wouldn't be picked up by the cops in the first place.

ANGEL
0
Points
ANGEL 04/08/09 - 10:39 am
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0

WOW here we go again.....

WOW here we go again..... people still want a FREE RIDE even when they are criminals. It does not get any better.

jatazz830
0
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jatazz830 04/08/09 - 10:49 am
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Nice to know that people are

Nice to know that people are still innocent before attempting to be proven guilty in some commenters eyes. So by your 10:07, Jack, everyone placed in jail is automatically guilty, a criminal, and deserve to be there???? G** forbid you or someone you love ever need to use the services of a Public Defender......
Some people are so judegemental......

ColdBeerBoiledPeanuts
6413
Points
ColdBeerBoiledPeanuts 04/08/09 - 11:16 am
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Rather than a government paid

Rather than a government paid public defender why doesn't one of these civil rights law groups represent them? These groups are filing lawsuits for them for free, why don't they represent them in court also? Think about it, if they want to stir trouble let them do the representing for free!

toldya
0
Points
toldya 04/08/09 - 11:48 am
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0

CBBP: thats a really great

CBBP: thats a really great suggestion- I know personally in Columbia County that the attorneys are required to do Pro Bono public defender service as part of their continuing legal education. Jack: Its in the Consitution, EVERYONE is entitled to an attorney and if they can't afford one, one is to appointed to them, part of the miranda rights. Not everyone arrested is guilty. There are alot of innocent men that have been in prison for 25 years and alot of them are turned free because now the forensic testing is available. Don't judge- its not your place.

thistownisunbelievable
1
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thistownisunbelievable 04/08/09 - 04:57 pm
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0

"If you can railroad a bad

"If you can railroad a bad man to prison, you can railroad a good man."--Bobby Lee Cook. Jack--I understand not wanting to pay for accused criminals' attorneys, but they are innocent until proven guilty and have the right to an attorney. Think about what's at stake--life and liberty. If you are ever arrested and charged, you'll want an attorney too.

Rose
17
Points
Rose 04/08/09 - 05:27 pm
0
0

If Jack has ever served on a

If Jack has ever served on a jury and the person was found guilty, then that case needs to be looked over again. Jack thinks only the guilty are arrested. Dang. That is stupid.

justus4
93
Points
justus4 04/08/09 - 10:53 pm
0
0

Ha! Ha! The system is broke.

Unpublished

Ha! Ha! The system is broke. Many of "us" have known it for years. Also, the convictions based on public defenders actions will prove to be suspect, while innocent folks (U know who) rotting in prison and idiots are talking about a just nation. Ha! Again, another indictment of a flawed system of unequal justice, poor policies of enforcement that are catching up with lawmakers.

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