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Lawyers sue state over gaps in indigent defense
Nearly 200 indigent defendants have no state-paid lawyer to handle their appeals, even though it’s required by Georgia law, according to a lawsuit filed today.
Many of the defendants have waited more than a year without an attorney, and some more than three years, the complaint alleges.
The state has two full-time attorneys, one part-time lawyer and $300,000 to hire private counsel for indigent defendants assigned to the Georgia Public Defenders Standards Council’s appellate division, according to the complaint. In 2008, the appellate division had five full-time attorneys.
Those lawyers juggle more than 475 cases, of which 187 have no attorney assigned. Fifty-five percent have been had no attorney for a year or more.
That caseload has exploded since the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in February 2008 that a convicted defendant is entitled to a new attorney to help determine whether the trial attorney did an adequate job. The division had 75 cases in March 2008 and 235 cases by November 2008, according to memos obtained under the Georgia Open Records Act.
National standards call for an criminal attorney to handle no more than 25 appeals in one year.
Despite initial hopes, many attorneys across the state were unwilling to accept appellate appointments from us because of the time and efforts inherent in handling appellate cases, and the limited compensation the Agency was able to pay. … the deluge of cases pouring in under Garland v. State has created the predicted crisis. Despite the best efforts of our attorneys to handle more than the contemplated 25 ‘paper appeals’ we are receiving significant backlash from both local judges and clients, further complicating the management of an impossible caseload.
The complaint asks a judge to order the state to provide an appellate attorney within 30 days of being notified that an indigent defendant doesn’t have one.
Lawyers from four firms and the Southern Center for Human Rights filed the complaint in Fulton County Superior Court. The Georgia Public Defenders Standards Council and Gov. Sonny Perdue are defendants.
Plaintiffs in the case include two defendants who have been imprisoned for more than three years without a lawyer to seek new trial proceedings, the Southern Center for Human Rights said. Three others have been denied counsel for at least a year, and the sixth for almost 10 months.
Said Michael A. Caplan, an attorney with Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore, in a prepared statement:
This case shows that at its current funding levels, the GPDSC is incapable of meeting its obligations to provide counsel to those accused and convicted of crimes. If the State does not meet its obligation to fund indigent defense, then the courts will intervene and require it to do so. When our system of criminal justice does not itself comply with the rule of law, its integrity is fairly questioned. That integrity is what is at issue in this case.