Title bout in GA: death penalty vs. no money

This seems to have been a week of heavyweight fights.  Last night some guy named Pacquaio rearranged the face of some dude named Cotto and earlier in the week, in the state of “even Brian Nichols didn’t get death”, aka Georgia, the well oiled machinery of state sponsored murder took on the almighty dollar.

Yes, that was a very convoluted way of saying that the GA Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case of Jamie Ryan Weis, who’s sat in pre-trial confinement for 4 years awaiting a death penalty trial. For the first two years of his confinement, he didn’t even have counsel. The reason? GA has no money. Not for him and not for the 70 or so other capital defendants.

The state high court’s decision, expected next year, will set an important precedent. Numerous death-penalty trials across the state have been delayed because there has been no money to pay defense lawyers, investigators, expert witnesses and mitigation specialists.

In recent weeks, the state Office of the Capital Defender has not had enough lawyers to fully defend all of the approximately 70 death cases pending statewide. This includes two defendants charged in the July 26 slaying in Atlanta of former pro boxing champion Vernon Forrest.

Georgia court rules call for a capital defendant to be represented by two experienced attorneys. But because of overwhelming case loads, the capital defender office has been able to provide only one lawyer each for Charman Sinkfield and Jquante Crews, two of three men charged with Forrest’s murder.

Not only “Georgia court rules”, but ABA standards as well require two lawyers on each capital case. Anything but is sure to result in a reversal. So why doesn’t Georgia have any money to pay for an adequate defense? I’m glad you asked:

The lawyers, Bob Citronberg and Tom West, asked for funds from the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council at a time when the case against courthouse killer Brian Nichols was almost single handedly bankrupting the state defender system. The state wound up paying $2.3 million of Nichols’ total $3.2 million defense tab.

That’s why. One of the most publicized death penalty cases in recent history, which ended without a death sentence. Back then, observers were already commenting that the Nichols case might spell the end of the death penalty in GA and it seems that it may come true, but in a different way.

There really is only one option here, for the GA Supreme Court, although not being a follower of that court, I don’t know if they’ll take it. That, of course, is to halt death penalty prosecutions until the state can afford to pay for competent defenses. No one should be burdened by the yoke of a death sentence obtained in violation of basic Constitutional rights (although that hasn’t stopped other states before). The Court has a unique opportunity here to put a stop this ridiculous drain on resources and let the money be utilized in more productive ways.

The implications of this case are tremendous and may be a foreshadowing of what is to come in other states that are all too eager to pursue this most barbaric of penalties.

If you want to watch the defendant’s lawyer argue before the Supreme Court, click here (interestingly, it seems that one can utilize visual aids in the Georgia Supreme Court. I’m not sure how many other appellate courts permit this: certainly not SCOTUS and not here in CT either. Does yours?).

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