Adam Liptak’s recent editorial in the New York Times will provide comfort for those of us who have watched the legislature and governor gut indigent defense in Georgia and attack the judiciary systematically. At the same time, it is a little embarrassing to read about the system that I love so much and wonder what the rest of the world must think of us. Reading national press on Georgia during the civil rights movement must have been like this. At the same time, the heroes in this story, such as those with the Southern Center for Human Rights are Georgia appellate lawyers working to make a difference. So, there’s a good bit to be proud of, too.
In fact, the Jamie Weis story demonstrates the difference appellate lawyers can make for the client and to the very system that has so far undermined him. It makes me proud to be a Georgia criminal appellate lawyer.
So, in case you missed it, here’s the story. Jamie Weis was indicted for murder in the Griffin Judicial Circuit. He has been in jail awaiting trial since 2006. August of that year, he was noticed with the intent to seek the death penalty. By March, 2007, the lawyers who had represented him for the beginning couldn’t get any more money to fund the defense. The State has adequate funding to try to convince a jury to kill Mr. Weis. But when the money ran out, the prosecutors were allowed to pick their opponent. They convinced Judge Caldwell — yep, that Judge Caldwell — to replace the lawyers with salaried public defenders. On its way to issuing a 4-3 Decision (PDF) determining that it was okay to substitute cheaper lawyers chosen by the State, one of the justices suggested at oral argument that defense counsel should work for free. He never suggested that the judge or prosecutor should work for free.
The damage has continued. Recently the Court dodged a similar challenge out of Cobb County, Phan v. State (PDF) where it had another opportunity to declare that indigent defense in Georgia is broken. They punted the case back to the trial court to make a determination that it had already made. Phan is to Weis what those two little girls are to each other in the Overlook Hotel in The Shining — not quite identical but really disturbing.
But there is hope in the combination of Georgia Appellate Lawyers, the U.S. Supreme Court, and recent media attention. Hopefully, all of those forces can overcome the other two branches of government in the Georgia political establishment (see the reference to the girls from The Shining).