The State Bar of Georgia routinely will run advertisements on television across Georgia extolling the virtues of their organization or some other message which they perceive as being meaningful as part of their “Cornerstones of Freedom” public advertising campaign. From the Bar telling people to vote to talking about the goal of fair and impartial courts, these ads are very generic in nature and innocuous.
That is, until their latest ad hit the airwaves. In it, the viewer is told that budget cuts are affecting the public in numerous ways, including “criminals released without trial,” “child support and custody cases undecided,” and “business disputes unresolved.” The Bar then demands of the viewer to contact their legislator to see that funding for the courts are restored.
Sweet, but the ad leaves much to be desired regarding the concept of “innocent until proven guilty.” And, yes, it is ‘ol Pete here writing this. Let me explain.
When speaking about criminals being “released without trial,” the background sound features jail cell doors clanking shut. The advertisement also, when discussing funding issues with the criminal justice system, solely focuses on the needs of prosecutors and judges. But what about the public defenders, which are critical to the smooth operation of the criminal justice system for those who cannot afford private defense attorneys?
O.C.G.A. 16-1-5 specifically deals with the presumption of innocence with regard to criminal defendants. But the State Bar of Georgia (which all attorneys must support with dues and which, I might ad, is supposed to represent all attorneys) would rather specifically focus on the needs of prosecutors and judges with nary a mention of public defenders. Such a position leaves much to be desired.
The problems with funding of the public defender system are clear and much more serious than for prosecutors and judges. For example:
On Tuesday, the Georgia Supreme Court heard the appeal of a death row inmate charged with killing an elderly neighbor. He’s arguing that his right to a speedy trial was violated by a lack of funding for Georgia’s ailing public defender system.
Jamie Weis had been without an attorney for more than eight months after the two private attorneys assigned to represent him were removed because the state-funded system couldn’t pay them. Stephen Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights told the court on Tuesday that the the three and a half year delay since he was charged with the killing of 73-year-old Catherine King is unconstitutional.
But there is more:
The state high court’s decision, expected next year, will set an important precedent. Numerous death-penalty trials across the state have been delayed because there has been no money to pay defense lawyers, investigators, expert witnesses and mitigation specialists.
In recent weeks, the state Office of the Capital Defender has not had enough lawyers to fully defend all of the approximately 70 death cases pending statewide. This includes two defendants charged in the July 26 slaying in Atlanta of former pro boxing champion Vernon Forrest.
Georgia court rules call for a capital defendant to be represented by two experienced attorneys. But because of overwhelming case loads, the capital defender office has been able to provide only one lawyer each for Charman Sinkfield and Jquante Crews, two of three men charged with Forrest’s murder.
The cases cannot move forward until each defendant has two lawyers, Jerry Word, acting head of the capital defender office, said Tuesday. The defender office also has been able to provide only one lawyer to two capital defendants in Walton County and another in Richmond County, he said.
The overarching question at Tuesday’s arguments was who should be held responsible for the repeated delays in getting Weis’ case to trial.
After Weis was charged in February 2006 with the murder of Catherine King, Pike County prosecutors had to indict him on two occasions because they forgot to put the names of the grand jurors on the initial indictment, causing a six-month delay.
Once the district attorney announced he was seeking the death penalty, Weis was appointed two private attorneys because the state Office of the Capital Defender had too many cases for its state-salaried defenders.
But this is lost on the State Bar of Georgia, which would prefer to make cheap political points by promoting an inaccurate and unacceptable negative perception of criminal defendants and their attorneys. Those attorneys are already making their displeasure known. Indeed, I’m hearing of attorneys who plan to withhold any further non-mandatory contributions to the State Bar unless this advertisement is immediately pulled from the airwaves.
The goal of what the State Bar seeks to do is admirable: restore funding to the judiciary. But pedantic scare tactics and promotion of only one side of the playing field (prosecutors) in their appeal to the public undermines the credibility of the message from an organization allegedly dedicated to ensuring that justice does indeed remain blind and meted out in a fair and impartial way.