I’m gonna pull the chain on you, pal. And you wanna know why? Cause you’re f****** up my city. Cause you’re walking all over people like you own them. And you wanna know the worst part? You’re from out of state. — Tom Sharky, Sharky’s Machine (1981)
Wonder why our courts are falling apart? Remember this headline, from February, 2008?
Tab climbs to nearly $216k quest for Nichols jurors
Fulton County taxpayers have spent nearly $216,000 to pick a jury to hear the death penalty case of courthouse rampage suspect Brian Nichols. Yet after more than a year, not a single juror has been chosen.
And it’s possible many, if not all, of those expenses will have to be paid again if a new jury pool is needed because so much time has passed since the current group of 1,000 potential jurors took their oaths in January 2007, some legal experts say.
“I would imagine you’re not going to be able to recoup that money,” said veteran death penalty defense attorney Jimmy Berry. “Almost everything that’s been allocated is gone.”
A couple of million dollars later, Nichols was convicted, though not sentenced to death. At every stage of the trial, however, his attorneys gamed the system to run up bills, and the actions of some jurors and judges drove costs even higher. Judge Hilton Fuller sent the case into a deep tailspin after he granted an interview to attorney and author Jeffrey Toobin, who quoted the judge chatting about Nichols’ obvious guilt, thus providing Nichols’ lawyers with even more opportunities to derail the system.
Nichols carried out his murders in front of witnesses and confessed to the crimes; nonetheless, were you among the many who breathed a sigh of relief only after he was actually convicted? Such is the twisted state of our trial system, where expensive game-playing by defense attorneys has taken the place of sanity, the people’s interests, or reasonable efforts to arrive at the truth.
The Gideon decision required American taxpayers to foot the bill for defendants who said they were too poor to pay for a lawyer. Since then, the defense bar has often used Gideon as a weapon in their ongoing efforts to undermine laws they oppose — particularly the death penalty. In essence, they are forcing you to pay for their activism under the cover of providing counsel for poor defendants. Such efforts get ramped up wherever there are state-funded “Defenders Councils” mixing advocacy with representing clients, all on the taxpayers’ dime. Why should we be paying for the infrastructure of what has become an activist organization?
And why, precisely, was Brian Nichols given such stretch-limousine legal representation at the expense of every other “indigent” defendant in the state of Georgia? Because the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council said that nothing less would do. From the New York Times:
ATLANTA, March 21  — A high-profile multiple-murder case has drained the budget of Georgia’s public defender system and brought all but a handful of its 72 capital cases to a standstill.
The case involves a rape suspect, Brian Nichols, who is accused of escaping from a courthouse here in 2005 after overpowering a guard, taking her gun and then killing a judge, a court reporter and two other people before he was recaptured.
Prosecutors say the evidence against Mr. Nichols, including a videotaped confession, is overwhelming. But the case has cost the public defender system $1.4 million, and, on Wednesday, the judge in the case postponed jury selection until Sept. 10. . . .
The Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, which manages the public defender system, has run out of money. That means it can no longer pay the three private lawyers on Mr. Nichols’s defense team. . . .
The case “is testing the will of the state of Georgia with regard to whether or not the death penalty is worth the amount it costs,” said Mike Mears, director of the standards council.
I thought the case was supposed to determine Brian Nichols’ guilt, not test the taxpayers’ will. What an astonishing display of hubris. Usually when people misuse public monies, they have the decency to not brag about it in the New York Times.
What’s even worse than legislating from the bench? Legislating from the defendant’s table. What’s worse than that? Using the bench to legislate from the defendant’s table. It’s hard not to conclude that Brian Nichols’ obvious guilt actually enabled the Standards Council to exploit the case for political gain:
Judge Fuller, a Superior Court judge in neighboring DeKalb County who was brought out of retirement for the Nichols trial, has been put in the unusual position of approving all spending for Mr. Nichols’s defense, a responsibility that would ordinarily fall to the Public Defender Standards Council, which oversees the Office of the Georgia Capital Defender.
But in 2005, the Office of the Capital Defender was disqualified from managing Mr. Nichols’s defense after Judge Fuller learned that one of the first four public defenders assigned to represent him was not qualified to practice law in Georgia.
Judge Fuller then appointed four new lawyers to defend Mr. Nichols, and the judge agreed to pay Henderson Hill, a noted defense lawyer from North Carolina, $175 an hour, about half what Mr. Hill customarily bills his private clients. Two of Mr. Nichols’s other lawyers are being paid $125 and $95 per hour, and the fourth is a state employee.
Hmmm, we need a Capital Defender’s Council because we need highly trained, specialized lawyers to take on all the vagaries of capital defense, but this crack team of lawyers conveniently forgot the extremely basic rule that one must be licensed to practice law in Georgia in order to practice law in Georgia?
Or was this just another expense-producing delay tactic? Funny how, either way, the defense wins.
Real, actual, elected legislators should not yield to these tactics. An excellent way to free up money for indigent defense is to simply stop funding the defense council, which has proven itself untrustworthy with the taxpayers’ money.
Sure, they’ll threaten even more endless appeals for inadequate representation, especially in cases with truly heinous offenders, the bread-and-butter of such advocacy (theory being that standing up for the truly indefensible is a badge of real courage, while standing up for a small-potatoes felon is both boring and hard to publicize).
But they’ll file endless appeals in every high profile case anyway. So why keep giving in to their demands?
This past year, the Georgia Legislature proposed stripping the Council of its funding oversight authority. The bill died in the House, but it’s worth reconsidering. Why should the rest of us, and the justice system itself, be held hostage by an advocacy group? Why should indigent defense allocations be determined by people whose real, admitted goal is to shut down the system?
Once again, Georgia State Senator Preston Smith (R – Rome) served as a voice of reason on both the Nichols case and the Defender Standards Council. Georgia is lucky to have Mr. Smith in office. In the New York Times:
In Georgia, State Senator Preston W. Smith, a Republican and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he thought the high price of Mr. Nichols’s defense was by design rather than necessity.
“You’re building in an incentive to destroy the death penalty by building in a financial nuclear weapon,” Mr. Smith said. “There’s one cynical view that says this isn’t at all by accident.”
The Standards Council knew precisely what it was doing when they created a giant cash sinkhole out of the Brian Nichols case. Heck, they bragged about it. And now they’re complaining that they simply cannot provide lawyers for poor people because all the money’s spent. A must-read article on this, from last week’s Atlanta Journal Constitution:
In Georgia, Lawyers Abandoning [the] Poor
Across Georgia, poor people accused of crimes are being abandoned by their lawyers because there is no money to pay their legal fees.
There are also 10 death-penalty cases proceeding to trial with $1.1 million in expected billings. But there is no money to pay for those cases, either.
And another must-read article: also from the AJC last week:
880 Fulton Inmates Still Await Trial a Year Later: Court System, State Funding, other factors blamed in backlog
Jonathon Robinson is charged with raping three women, but he has sat in the Fulton County jail for four years without a trial at an estimated cost to local taxpayers of more than $100,000.
Robinson may be one of the worst cases of justice delayed but it is far from an isolated one. The Fulton county jail currently has a backlog of about 880 prisoners who have been awaiting trial — most for felonies like murder, rape or armed robbery — for more than a year, according to county figures. . . .
There are a number of contributing factors: The case backlog is blamed on various reasons: a fragmented and largely unaccountable court system, lack of state funding for enough judges, wily defense lawyers, mandatory sentencing that makes it difficult to plea bargain and the failure of Superior Court judges to manage their dockets and set cases for trial.
Robinson’s case touches on most of those factors. Last May, Robinson asked the Georgia Court of Appeals to void his indictments on the grounds his constitutional rights have been violated for lack of a speedy trial. No ruling has yet been handed down.
“He has been failed by the court system, the prosecutors and his defense lawyers,” said his former lawyer Scott Dawkins. “He was in front of a judge … who didn’t move cases very well. He kept getting bounced from attorney to attorney and the prosecutors kept switching.”
The Superior Court has been taking steps to address the backlog to eliminate jail overcrowding and develop a more efficient court system. It’s a tall order in a system in which the 19 judges are independently elected with little accountability, answerable only to voters. They generally run unopposed.
I’ve been critical of the AJC for its criminal justice reporting in the past. But I’ve been nothing but impressed by their coverage of the last several months of funding crises and other crises in the state justice system.
Meanwhile, it’s time for the state to stop handing blank checks to the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council. Take the state checkbook away from the activists, and put somebody neutral and accountable in charge of allocating funds for indigent defense.