July 21, 2001

Defense System in Georgia Needs Overhaul, Lawyers Say

By DAVID FIRESTONE


ATLANTA, July 20 Some of Georgia's best-known lawyers made a plea today for improving Georgia's system of defending poor people accused of crimes, arguing that the state needed to change one of the lowest-funded and most disorganized defense systems in the nation.

But in an indication of just how hard changing that system is likely to be, the lawyers barely held back an effort by trial judges and prosecutors to water down the proposal at a meeting today of a committee of the Georgia Bar Association. Leaders of the two groups said the proposal went too far in recommending that the state, and not counties and trial judges, should have control over defending the indigent.

The committee's proposal, if approved by the bar association, would represent a powerful statement by the state's 24,000 lawyers that the Legislature should change the system, often cited by legal scholars as a textbook case of unequal justice. The state pays 12 percent of the cost of public defense, or $6 million, the lowest rate in the country. And each of its 159 counties essentially runs its own system, with widely varying results.

A study last year by the Southern Center for Human Rights, a civil liberties group based in Atlanta, found that in many rural Georgia counties, poor defendants spend months in jail with no legal representation, then meet their lawyers about 10 minutes before trial. The court- appointed lawyers, often paid $50 or less per case, routinely persuade their clients to plead guilty to avoid a trial, and in many counties, rates of guilty pleas are as high as 98 percent.

In May, the state bar association's advisory committee on legislation called on the state to pay all of the costs of indigent defense, to remove the responsibility for appointing counsel from counties and judges, and to finance the system into parity with the costs of prosecutors. At today's meeting, the state's organizations of trial judges and prosecutors backed an effort to rescind that resolution, saying that it went too far and that the state was not ready for wholesale change.

"We've heard a lot of anecdotes about problems at such and such a time, some poor slob pleaded guilty and didn't talk to a lawyer for over 10 minutes," said Judge Walter J. Matthews of Rome, president of the Council of Superior Court Judges of Georgia. "Does that indict the whole system? No. That's not how you make public policy."

Judge Matthews also said he did not think it was wise to remove control of the defense system from elected judges and turn it over to a state administrator.

But several prominent lawyers speaking at the committee meeting said such a change was long overdue, arguing that few competent lawyers would agree to be paid at the low county rates. Some suggested that trial judges simply wanted to retain a system that gave them wide discretion in choosing defense lawyers.

"If we as lawyers don't stand up for what is right, it would make me want to turn in my license to practice," said Edward T. M. Garland, a criminal lawyer in Atlanta who recently successfully defended the professional football player Ray Lewis on murder charges. "We've got to stand up to the state and tell them to give us the money for justice. Every lawyer in the state ought to be at the Capitol lobbying and picketing if necessary."

Emmett Bondurant, an Atlanta lawyer who studied the defense system for the bar association, said the sole public defender in Greene County, in north-central Georgia, had no office or phone and never met with clients until they were ready to plead guilty.

"It would turn your stomach if you could see the standards of due process in our state," Mr. Bondurant said. "It is not even remotely constitutionally adequate. If we are going to turn our back on the poor, this is not a bar association in which I would want to be a member."

After several hours of debate, the committee voted 9 to 5 to keep its proposal and pass it on to the association's board of governors.

The committee's proposal would make Georgia's system similar to the centralized state public defender systems in 25 other states. (The other states have a mixture of state and county control, but spend far more on their systems than Georgia does.)

Several previous efforts to persuade the Legislature to pay for such a system have failed, and bar officials said they were not optimistic that significant change would occur anytime soon, particularly when Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat, has said that volunteer lawyers, not the state, should fix the system.

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