Georgia officials announced that they would reopen applications for the position of Public Defender in the Cordele Judicial Circuit in south central Georgia and receive applications until October 17. The announcement came after attorneys representing children and adults accused of crimes in the Circuit filed an emergency motion on August 25 challenging the appointment of a new public defender on August 1 that was to be followed by an after-the-fact sham selection process, and it was revealed that the newly-appointed public defender had a history of sexual harassment.
The Alice-in-Wonderland approach of first appointing a new public defender and then conducting a hiring process threatened to perpetuate the denial of legal representation for poor children and adults accused of acts of delinquency and crimes in the Circuit. A suit challenging the representation was brought in January, 2014. The circuit is the only one in Georgia in which its counties, Ben Hill, Crisp, Dooly and Wilcox, do not fund positions for attorneys and investigators in the public defender office. The public defender office has three attorneys and an annual caseload of approximately 1700, according to the job announcement. That is 567 cases for each attorney – far more than any attorney can competently and ethically handle.
As a result, people arrested in the Circuit often go for months without seeing a lawyer. The only interaction that many children and adults have with a public defender is being told of a plea offer shortly before arraignment at which they are expected to enter a guilty plea. Continue reading
In 1963, the Supreme Court declared in Gideon v. Wainwright the right to a lawyer “fundamental and essential” to fairness in the criminal courts and held that lawyers must be provided for people who could not afford them so that every person “stands equal before the law.” In later decisions, the Court ruled that a poor person facing any loss of liberty must have a lawyer “so that the accused may know precisely what he is doing, so that he is fully aware of the prospect of going to jail or prison, and so that he is treated fairly by the prosecution.”
And yet, more than a half century later this right is violated every day in thousands of courts across the nation at every stage of the process, as described in an op-ed by Stephen Bright and Sia Sanneh in the Los Angeles Times on the anniversary of Gideon. This long-standing denial of justice to those whose life and liberty are at stake is well documented on this site and elsewhere. On the fiftieth anniversary of Gideon in 2013, there was virtually universal agreement that, while there are reasons to appreciate what Gideon has accomplished in some jurisdictions that have good public defender or assigned counsel programs, public officials who have taken an oath to uphold the Constitution have flagrantly and persistently failed to implement the most fundamental constitutional requirement for fairness and equal justice in the criminal courts.
• Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged that the right to counsel remains in a “state of crisis” because governments have failed to meet their constitutional responsibilities Continue reading
Alabama law allowing elected judges to reject jury sentences of life imprisonment and impose the death penalty should be reviewed by the Supreme Court, Justice Sonya Sotomayor said in a dissent from the Court’s refusal to consider such a case. An Alabama jury voted 8-4 to sentence Mario Woodward to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after hearing evidence of his childhood and parenting at a sentencing hearing. However, the trial judge, elected as a Democrat to his position, overrode the death sentence and imposed the death penalty.
Since Alabama adopted its current death penalty statute, its judges have imposed death sentences on 95 defendants sentenced to life without parole by juries. In cases in which juries voted to impose the death penalty, judges overrode and imposed life imprisonment only nine times. Only two other states, Florida and Delaware, allow overrides, but Alabama is the only state in which judges still override jury verdicts. Twenty-six of the 27 life-to-death overrides in the nation since 2000 were by Alabama judges. (The other, which occurred in Delaware, was later reduced to a sentence of life imprisonment.)
Justice Sotomayor, joined in part by Justice Breyer, identified the reason for overrides in Alabama. “Alabama judges, who are elected in partisan proceedings, appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures,” she said. She observed that a “national consensus has Continue reading
The South Carolina Supreme Court refused to review a juror’s reference to a man sentenced to death as a “dumb nigger” and racial tactics employed by the prosecutor before an all-white jury to get the death penalty. Johnny Bennett, an African American, was sentenced to death by an all-white jury in 2000 after an earlier death sentence, imposed by a mixed-race jury in 1995, was reversed on appeal.
A juror stated after the second trial that Bennett had committed the crime “because he was just a dumb nigger.” In a hearing before the trial court, the juror admitted using the racial slur as well as using it with “dumb” on previous occasions. The trial judge, in an order Continue reading
Racial stereotypes of jurors who may associate white defendants as having more worth than black defendants contributes to the racial disparities in the infliction of the death penalty, according to a recent study. The study further found that death-qualified jurors held stronger racial biases than potential jurors who would be excluded from serving in death penalty cases because of their inability to consider a sentence of death. The study, Devaluing Death: An Empirical Study of Implicit Racial Bias on Jury-Eligible Citizens in Six Death Penalty States,” was based on testing of 445 jury-eligible individuals by researchers Justin Levinson, Robert Smith, and Danielle Young, and will be published in the New York University Law Review.
Other factors that contribute to racial disparities include discretionary decisions made by law enforcement with regard to stops, arrests investigation of cases, and by prosecutors with regard to charging, seeking the death penalty, resolving cases with plea bargains and striking potential jurors on the basis of race. These and other racial factors are discussed elsewhere on this site.