State inmates waiting years for lawyers to file their appeals, suit says

12th December, 2009
The Atlanta Journal Constitution
Bill Rankin

Almost 200 convicted felons are without lawyers to file their appeals because there is no money to pay for them,  according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday. Some inmates have been waiting more than three years and more than half have been waiting at least a year for appointed appellate counsel, said the suit, filed in Fulton County Superior Court. It seeks an order requiring the state public defender system to provide lawyers for these inmates.

"It is inexcusable for some of our plaintiffs to have been incarcerated for years without counsel when the law couldn't be clearer," said Lauren Sudeall Lucas of the Southern Center for Human Rights, one of six local law firms litigating the case. "The Constitution has to be a line item in the state's budget."

Appeals serve as an important safeguard to ensure convictions are properly obtained, she added.

The suit was filed against a number of parties, including the state of Georgia, Gov. Sonny Perdue, the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council and state treasury director Daniel Ebersole.

The lawsuit is the latest legal attack that focused on funding problems that plague the state defender agency.

Appeals before the Georgia Supreme Court say the speedy trial rights of two death-penalty defendants have been violated because the council was unable to pay for the defense of the accused. A lawsuit filed in April is calling for prosecutions to be halted against a number of northeast Georgia criminal defendants until they are provided lawyers to represent them.

Tuesday's lawsuit was filed on behalf of six men convicted of murder and seeks class-action status on behalf of all persons who have not been provided appellate lawyers. One plaintiff, Darnell Amaker, a 23-year-old Atlanta man, was found guilty of killing his girlfriend in April 2006 but still has no lawyer to file his appeal, the suit said.

The lawsuit notes that Jimmonique Rogers, the director of the defender council's appellate division, warned her superiors in December 2008 that her office had an impossible case load. Over the past year, the situation has gotten even worse. There are now 187 people without lawyers to file their appeals and the number grows by at least 10 a month, the suit said.

The statewide system replaced fragmented and often underfunded and overwhelmed county-run programs. But in recent years, the state defender agency has struggled to meet its obligations because of budget woes.

A revenue stream from court fines and fees that was set up specifically to fund the state system is collecting more than enough funds to meet its needs, according to current and past members of the agency's board. But in recent years legislators have diverted millions of dollars of collections to fund other programs.

If the state cannot meet its obligation to fund indigent defense, the courts must intervene, said Michael Caplan, an attorney in the litigation. "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."