Ga. inmates say state fails to assign attorneys

15th December, 2009
Associated Press
Greg Bluestein

ATLANTA — Georgia has failed to provide lawyers for nearly 200 convicted criminals who can't afford attorneys but claim they're innocent and want to appeal, according to a lawsuit filed today against a host of state officials.

Two of the lawsuit's six plaintiffs said they've waited more than three years for a state-appointed lawyer to represent them in an appeal, while the other four have waited more than 10 months, according to the legal challenge filed in Fulton County Superior Court.

The lawsuit contends that the state has failed to provide the convicted poor defendants with legal counsel for their direct appeals and other challenges, such as motions for a new trial. The lawsuit's supporters said it's the first time criminals who want to file an appeal have taken Georgia to court to force the state to provide lawyers. Several similar lawsuits are pending in other states.

The six plaintiffs, represented by the Southern Center for Human Rights and several Georgia law firms, argue that the U.S. Constitution, state statutes and federal caselaw require the state to provide poor defendants with legal counsel for "all critical stages of the criminal proceeding."

"It is inexcusable for some of our plaintiffs to have been incarcerated for years without counsel when the law could not be clearer," said Lauren Sudeall Lucas, an attorney with the center. "The Constitution has to be a line item in the state's budget."

The lawsuit was filed against Gov. Sonny Perdue and officials with the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council. Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley and Mack Crawford, the council's executive director, did not immediately respond to several telephone calls and e-mails seeking comment.

The challenge is the latest targeting the state-funded public defender system, which faces criticism from the right and the left as it struggles to cope with falling tax revenues and lagging support from lawmakers.

Georgia's conservative legislative leaders have slashed funding amid frustration at what they consider the system's overzealous spending. And civil rights groups on the left have launched a series of challenges contending that the public defender network is failing its mission to defend Georgia's poor.

The latest budget cuts, the lawsuit said, forced the system to cut the number of staff attorneys for the appellate division in half, leaving it with two full-time attorneys and one part-time attorney.

The complaint cites a December 2008 letter from the division's director, Jimmonique Rodgers, in which she warned of an "impossible case load" and said that her staff was unable to assign at least 75 indigent defendants with attorneys for their appeals. That number ballooned to 187 in November 2009 and continues to grow by about 10 more defendants a month.

"We have begun, justifiably, to receive backlash from both local judges and clients frustrated with the inevitable delay," Rodgers wrote in the memo.

The budget cuts have left the system's appellate division "incapable of meeting its obligations" and forced critics to challenge it in court, said Michael A. Caplan, an attorney with Bondurant, Mixson & Ellmore, one of four Georgia firms involved in the lawsuit.

"When our system of criminal justice does not itself comply with the rule of law, its integrity is fairly questioned," he said. "That integrity is what is at issue in this case."