Dozens of poor defendants still without lawyers

Critics: Few changes made in state's public defense crisis

Critics of Georgia's public defender system filed a lawsuit in April contending that hundreds of poor defendants in northeast Georgia were languishing in jails without seeing attorneys. They returned to court Thursday to tell a judge that there is still much work to be done.

There are still dozens of lawyerless indigent defendants in northeast Georgia sitting in jail awaiting an attorney, said Gerry Weber, an attorney for the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, which filed the lawsuit.

And while the lawsuit's five plaintiffs now have legal counsel, Weber said other poor defendants who have been assigned attorneys have not been notified and many have received little more than a cursory visit from an overworked defense lawyer.

"There is no question that progress is being made, but our investigation still reveals some significant gaps," said Weber. "This is a fix, but it's not completely fixed."

State attorney Stefan Ritter argued that the lawsuit was a moot point now that the plaintiffs had attorneys. He also said there's no evidence of "an overall breakdown in the system" and argued that the critics had a political motive.

"This is a claim that people are not getting counsel," said Ritter. "And we feel we have completely corrected any problems and this case should have been dismissed."

But Superior Court Judge J. David Roper was not immediately swayed. He did not dismiss the case and said he would weigh whether to certify a class action. He also said he would likely schedule a hearing that could involve judges, prosecutors and prisoners to testify on the extent of the problem.

"I think we need the players here so I know what's really going on," Roper said.

The lawsuit is one of the stiffest challenges yet to Georgia's public defender system, which like others across the country faces mounting funding problems amid the economic downturn.

It seeks to block prosecutions of indigent defendants in so-called "conflict" cases — those that involve multiple defendants — until they all have attorneys. In such cases, state-funded public defenders can only represent one person, so private attorneys are hired to represent the co-defendants.

But the complaint says the public defender system cut off much of the funding for three attorneys who handled conflict cases for the Northern Judicial Circuit, spanning five counties in northeast Georgia. It said the funding shortfall forced some defendants to wait in jails for months and show up to plea hearings without attorneys.

Ritter told the judge that the state moved swiftly to ensure all the defendants had lawyers after the lawsuit was filed.

"When we found out about these problems, we went out and immediately tried to rectify it," said Ritter.

But Weber argued the region is still riddled with problems.

He said as recently as last week officials in Oglethorpe County weren't assigning attorneys to indigent defendants. And he said attorneys in the region are already straying close to guidelines that limit how many clients they can see in a year.

"This is a moving target," he said. "There are still significant gaps."