January 01, 2010

Jurisdiction in Need: Georgia

The economic crisis in the United States is having profound consequences for indigent capital defense in Georgia.  Several capital defendants have waited more than four years for their trials to commence due to insufficient funds to pay for legal representation.  The state nevertheless continues to seek the death penalty.  Approximately 70 capital cases were pending in late 2009.

In response to the lack of funds and resulting trial delays capital defense attorneys have asked the Georgia courts to dismiss the charges against their clients or prevent the state from seeking the death penalty.  Counsel allege that the delays have violated their clients’ speedy-trial rights. 

The Georgia Supreme Court heard oral arguments in one of these cases in November 2009.  The capital defendant in that case waited nearly four years between his arrest and his scheduled trial.  All delay was due to state action: first a nearly one-year wait for the state to file its notice of intent to seek the death penalty, then refusals to provide funding for experts, and finally the removal of his appointed counsel.

While waiting for trial, the defendant attempted suicide three times and tried to abandon any legal defense.  His mother died a few days after the oral argument before the Georgia Supreme Court, a development that might impede the ability to collect critical mitigation evidence in the case.

Recognizing the significance of the legal issue, one of the justices on the Georgia Supreme Court asked at the oral argument, “Is this the case that will determine whether the state of Georgia can afford the death penalty or not afford the death penalty?” 

The state’s failure to provide basic funding for indigent criminal defense extends beyond capital cases.  In December 2009, lawyers filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of nearly 200 convicted indigent defendants who lack lawyers to represent them in their appeals. 

In April 2009, lawyers filed a lawsuit to challenge the state’s failure to provide trial attorneys to more than 300 defendants awaiting trial in northeast Georgia.  The Southern Center for Human Rights and other attorneys in Georgia have championed this cause.

Georgia created a state-wide public defender system in 2005.  Although specific fees and surcharges were established to fund the public defender system, the Georgia Legislature refused to transfer all of the funds collected to the public defender system.  The Legislature has also refused to authorize emergency funding for the public defender system. 

Georgia is already under scrutiny because of the evidentiary hearing that will occur to consider death-sentenced prisoner Troy Davis’ claim of innocence.  In August 2009 the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a federal court to conduct an evidentiary hearing and make findings of fact.  Mr. Davis was convicted and sentenced to death in 1991 for the 1989 murder of an off-duty police officer.  However, seven of the nine witnesses who testified against Mr. Davis have recanted, and other witnesses have implicated the state’s primary witness as the actual killer.

At the end of 2009, Georgia had 107 death-sentenced prisoners, all but one of whom are men.  The state executed three prisoners in 2009, the same number that it executed in 2008.