Last fall, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that roughly 600 indigent defendants did not have court-appointed attorneys, many of whom had been sitting in overcrowded jails for months, and sometimes years, as the agency struggled to find staff. Current and former public defenders blamed agency executive director Omotayo Alli for mismanaging the agency.
After the AJC’s investigation, which referenced documents that the Southern Center had previously obtained, the state tightened controls on information that was released about Georgia’s public defender system, according to a lawsuit the the nonprofit filed in June. The lawsuit, which sues Alli and various anonymous public officials in the agency, alleges the agency is stonewalling efforts to gain access to state records that are subject to Georgia’s open records law.
The Southern Center says it is releasing the records to illustrate for the public the dire situation across Georgia. It’s unclear to what extent the problems outlined by the records, many of which are more than a year old, still persist.
“We don’t know the scope but we continue to hear of people sitting in jail cells, accused who don’t have lawyers,” said Southern Center Deputy Director Atteeyah Hollie.
The state has until mid-September to file an answer to the lawsuit, Hollie said.
The public defender council declined to comment specifically on the lawsuit, but agency spokesperson Thomas O’Connor said the council has implemented several policies to address representation, including increasing pay and establishing new offices.
Public defenders represent roughly 85% of criminal defendants in Georgia each year and the state is required under the U.S. Constitution to provide such a defense. The agency assigns attorneys through dozens of offices across the state. The collection of documents released by the nonprofit sheds new light on the depths with which the state agency has struggled to meet these requirements.
They show how the state has struggled to hire and retain attorneys, and they often mention complaints about a shortage of so-called “C-3″ attorneys — private lawyers contracted by the state to handle cases with multiple defendants.
Judges voiced concerns to Alli and others about the parade of unrepresented defendants appearing in court, many of whom have languished in jail as they await legal representation.
“As you are aware, the lack of C3 attorneys has worked to cause grave injustice to those persons subject to charges brought by the State, particularly those who are in custody,” Judge Leftridge said in a May 2022 email to GPDC management.
A month later, Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Ural Glanville wrote to officials in the state’s public defender agency for an update on several unrepresented defendants in his courtroom, some of whom had been incarcerated for months while their cases languished. In several cases, the agency told the judge there were administrative steps remaining before attorneys could be appointed.
The judge at one point even recommended an attorney he knows to take on the case, according to an email.
The files released by the Southern Center also chronicle the struggles of rank and file public defenders.
Guidelines by the American Bar Association recommend that attorneys have no more than 150 felony cases, or 400 misdemeanors, per year. A shortage of attorneys meant that one Atlanta public defender, Elizabeth Mathew, managed more than 550 cases at one point, records show.
In February 2022, she emailed her superiors asking for more support in managing her caseload. Mathew, who was also handling cases for a colleague, said she was falling behind, unable to properly review cases or even talk to clients.
“I understand that we are not fully staffed at this time, and we are all doing our best to meet our clients’ needs in a high volume environment, but I am already starting to feel drained and that I am not doing my job effectively,” Mathew wrote.
Gina Bernard, a managing attorney with the state’s public defender agency, replied to Mathew thanking her for her work while also making clear there was no easy fix to the staffing challenges.
“I wish I had a stack of attorney resumes to go through and review, so that I could say ‘Elizabeth, we are hiring 4 more attorneys in the next two weeks’, but I don’t,” Bernard replied. “Know that I understand the frustration, and I am doing all that I can to try and ease that burden.”
Mathew did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
In response to the AJC’s November investigation, Alli last fall said the agency revamped its processes to ensure indigent clients are assigned an attorney within 72 hours. She said there was not a staffing crisis, pointing to increased funding from the legislature since she was appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp in 2020.
Shortly after the AJC published its investigation, the agency earmarked thousands to help improve its public messaging. Documents released by the Southern Center show the agency contracted with two public relations firms -- one last fall, the other this year.
Still, questions linger today about whether the state is fulfilling its constitutional requirements.
Just days after Alli’s comments, GPDC attorney Arnold Ragas appeared before Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney last November for a hearing on behalf of a defendant who had been in jail since December 2019. Ragas told the judge he was serving as a “placeholder” attorney to dozens of other indigent defendants, according to a video recording of the hearing.
“We are doing everything in our power to add more attorneys. It is not happening as readily as none of us would like, and I apologize for that,” Ragas said.
GPDC spokesperson Thomas O’Connor said earlier this year that Ragas’ comments were “taken out of context.” As the head of a statewide unit, Ragas coordinates assignments to other attorneys, O’Connor said, who often work behind the scenes to represent a client.
“He’s not just a name on a piece of paper,” O’Connor said. “We have folks working on his cases.”
The state’s struggle to appoint attorneys led Fulton to develop its own stop-gap program. The county court system earlier this year started using federal funds from the pandemic-era American Rescue Plan to appoint its own contracted public defenders.
Fulton-contracted attorneys have taken on roughly 80 clients since the program began in earnest, McBurney said. But he said the state has apparently increased its efforts. McBurney said he currently has no unrepresented defendants on his docket.
He said he remains concerned some public defenders are still spread thin, echoing apprehension he had with Ragas’ role earlier this year.
“We’re definitely moving in the right direction” McBurney said. “But like with all projects there’s more work to be done. There are some good lawyers who are stretched too thinly.”