Defender council moves to get lawyers for indigent inmates

The Georgia Public Defender Standards Council signed contracts with appellate lawyers to represent 117 indigent convicts just two days before a hearing Friday in Fulton County Superior Court. The Southern Center for Human Rights and other Atlanta lawyers, representing the inmates, have sued the defender council and Gov. Sonny Perdue. They are seeking a court order to require the state to adequately fund the agency's appellate division.

Lawyers representing the inmates welcomed the news, but said it did not resolve a deep-rooted problem of an agency that has long struggled to meet its obligations with inadequate funding.

"Are we pleased with this 11th-hour change of heart? Certainly," said Gerry Weber, a lawyer representing the indigent inmates. "Does it fix the problem? No. It's a Band-Aid. The hemorrhage is getting larger, no question."

At the end of December, an estimated 190 indigent convicts had not been assigned lawyers to file their appeals. About 20 had been waiting for more than three years to get appellate counsel, and one had been waiting more than seven years, according to Mike Caplan, an attorney representing the inmates.

"Any budgetary argument made is totally irrelevant to this case," Caplan said, citing prior Supreme Court rulings on an indigent defendant's right to counsel.

DeBrae Kennedy, a lawyer from the State Attorney General's Office, asked Fulton County Judge Jerry Baxter to dismiss the case because the inmates who brought the suit now have lawyers.

It's "unfortunate" that many inmates are not getting appointed appellate counsel as fast as possible, Kennedy said. But the defender council "does not have unlimited resources" and no clients' rights have been compromised because of the delays, she said.

Kennedy said the defender council has a "multi-faceted plan in effect to insure those remaining will have counsel, too."

Baxter, after hearing a day's worth of arguments and testimony, continued the hearing until Wednesday.

Mack Crawford, executive director of the defender council, testified that the agency began hiring lawyers on a contract basis to meet the swelling caseloads in July 2009. Since then, the council agreed to pay $166,500 on contracts to handle the 117 cases.

But Caplan noted that some lawyers would be earning roughly $1,200 a case, and that some complex murder appeals could take up to 140 hours of work.

Baxter expressed surprise, noting that in years past when judges could appoint appellate lawyers he approved bills ranging from $3,000 to $6,000 a case. "They are working, like, for less than $10 an hour?" he asked.

Jimmonique Rodgers, head of the defender council's appellate division, testified that "20-some" inmates still do not have lawyers to file their appeals. The plaintiffs' lawyers estimated that more than five dozen inmates remain lawyerless.

Rodgers said 15 to 30 new requests for appellate lawyers come in every month.

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