State picks new leader of embattled defender office

The state’s public defender agency has picked a private attorney to head its embattled office in Cordele — and it’s not a nationally recognized expert who applied for the job.

Swainsboro lawyer Tracy J. Mullis, a former public defender who worked during law school for the Georgia Innocence Project, will head the office that represents defendants in the four-county judicial circuit south of Macon.

“Recognized as one of the best criminal defense attorneys in the area, Tracy came to us highly recommended,” the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council said in a statement.

Mullis, who could not be reached for comment, once served as the chief assistant public defender at the office in Sandersville.

Stephen Bright, senior counsel for the Southern Center for Human Rights, surprised the state’s legal community in August when he submitted an application to head the Cordele post. One of the top experts on indigent defense, Bright said he wanted to turn “the worst public defender office in the state” into a model for Georgia and the nation.

“I was looking forward to the challenge,” Bright said Thursday. “But I know there were a number of others who applied. I certainly hope Tracy Mullis will be able to turn that office around.”

Bright was one of a number of lawyers who filed suit in January against the Cordele circuit, contending it failed to provide meaningful representation to adult defendants and allowed juvenile defendants to go completely unrepresented in court.

After the suit was filed, the state council replaced the head of the Cordele office and named Burt Baker as interim chief. Baker soon came under fire when court filings accused him of sexual harassment. He will now work at the state Capital Defender’s Office in Macon, the council said.

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