The state public defender system has removed the chief defender of the Cordele Judicial Circuit, which is being sued on allegations it provides shoddy representation for poor people accused of crimes.
Ex-circuit defender Tim Eidson, a defendant in the lawsuit, has joined the system’s capital office in Tifton and will defend death-penalty cases, said Travis Sakrison, executive director of the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council. Eidson is changing jobs with Burt Baker, who serves as interim director of the Cordele circuit until a full-time replacement is chosen.
The lawsuit, filed in January, said the circuit fails to provide meaningful representation for adult defendants and allows juvenile defendants to face their charges without any representation at all. The right to counsel is routinely reduced to a hollow formality in the South Georgia circuit, the suit said.
The lawsuit, pending in Fulton County Superior Court, was filed against Gov. Nathan Deal, Sakrison, judges, prosecutors and county commissioners in Ben Hill, Crisp, Dooly and Wilcox counties.
Stephen Bright, one of the lawyers in the Cordele litigation, criticized the recent handling of the situation, noting it has been known for some time that Eidson was going to be replaced.
“If ever there was a place where openness, transparency and reaching out to find the most qualified person capable in representing criminal defendants and running a public defender office (is needed), this is it,” said Bright, senior counsel for the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. “Instead, there is this secret, backroom shuffling of people around with no pretense of looking for the best qualified person for the job. There is no conceivable way that this secret switching is in the best interests of the clients of the public defender’s office.”
Cordele lawyer Russell Wright, who serves on the circuit’s two-person selection committee, acknowledged that the panel posted the opening after the switch. But the panel followed the same application procedure it did when Eidson was chosen, Wright said.
Lawyers interested in the opening have until Aug. 25 to submit an application. The circuit’s staff consists of three attorneys who handle 1,700 cases a year.
When asked why he was replacing Eidson, Sakrison declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
Eidson has headed the Cordele office since 2007. He was briefly suspended after being indicted on federal corruption charges — giving false statements and obstruction of justice — stemming from when he served as a state prosecutor. He was acquitted of all charges in August 2008 and returned to the public defender position.
Baker served as Cordele’s circuit defender before Eidson and, more recently, as a capital defender.
“Burt Baker is a proven leader, a great lawyer and a great administrator,” Sakrison said. “He will be an awesome interim circuit defender until one is chosen.”