ATLANTA, GA, – The United States Supreme Court declined on October 4, 2010 to review the Georgia Supreme Court's 4-3 decision, upholding Georgia's failure to provide funding for legal representation in a capital case for all but six weeks of the three and a half years that the case was pending trial and a trial judge's substitution of defense counsel - on motion by the district attorney - to save money. Read more.
Jamie Ryan Weis, who has been facing the death penalty in Pike County, Georgia and whose legal team includes attorneys from the Center, had petitioned the Court to review a 4-3 decision of the Georgia Supreme Court which rejected Weis' claim that he was denied his right to counsel and a speedy trial by Georgia's failure to provide funding for his lawyers, investigators and expert witnesses and the trial judge's removal of his defense counsel and substitution of local public defenders.
The four justices in the Georgia Supreme Court majority said that Weis should have accepted the trial judge’s removal of the lawyers representing him and the substitution of local public defenders even though the public defenders stated in motions to withdraw that they lacked the time, resources and expertise to “perform adequately in representing the Defendant, no matter how good our intentions or diligent our efforts.”
Justice Hugh Thompson, joined by Chief Justice Carol Hunstein and Justice Robert Benhan, dissented, stating: “The failure to move this case forward is the direct result of the government’s unwillingness to meet its constitutional obligation to provide Weis with legal counsel and the funds necessary for a full investigation.”
Besides blaming Weis for the delay, the Georgia Supreme Court majority also held there was no "breakdown" in the public defender system, even though the system ran completely out of funding for Weis and other capital cases.
Justice Thompson responded in his dissent: "The State cannot shirk this responsibility because it is experiencing budgetary constraints. It still must fulfill its constitutional obligation to bring those accused of committing crimes to trial in a speedy manner. . . . The State should not be allowed to fully arm its prosecutors while it hamstrings the defense and blames defendant for any resultant delay.
The petiton to the U. S. Supreme Court pointed out that the overwhelming majority of courts throughout the country have held that an ongoing attorney-client relationship cannot be interrupted except for the most compelling reasons, such as a conflict of interest, disability, or contempt of court. It also argued that the denial of counsel for Weis for such a long period of time has made a fair trial impossible because of lack of investigation during the critical pre-trial period and the death of Weis' mother who would have been a witness at his trial and a
source of mitigating information about her son.
After the Georgia Supreme Court held in a subsequent case, Phan v. State, 2010 WL 2553467 (Ga. June 28, 2010), that trial judges are to consider replacing defense counsel whenever presented with a speedy trial issue, the Weis legal team filed a supplemental brief arguing that the decision in Phan did “serious and unprecedented violence to the constitutional right to counsel” and provided another compelling reason for the Supreme Court to review the case because “no other court in the country makes a mockery of the right to counsel the way the Georgia Supreme Court has.”
A friend-of-the-court brief supporting the Petition for U.S. Supreme Court review was filed by former Georgia Chief Justice Norman S. Fletcher; Charles R. Morgan, who headed the Georgia Supreme Court's commission on indigent defense in the early 2000s; Emmet J. Bondurant, who served as the first chairman of the Public Defender Standards Council from 2005 to 2007; his successor, C. Wilson DuBose, who served until 2009; current Council members Donald F. Oliver and E. Wycliffe Orr Sr.; and Edward Hine Jr., who served on the council from 2003 to 2007.
Their brief points out that the Georgia legislature created a fund generated by fines and filing fees to support the defense of poor people accused of crimes, but has refused to appropriate all the funds raised by the fund for that purpose. "In the past four years, the fund has generated more than $23 million in court filing fees and fines that have not been appropriated to indigent defense," the brief states. "Georgia's indigent defense system has been crippled by this refusal to fund the system appropriately."
"Under current practices," the brief continues, "it is perfectly acceptable to deny funding for a capital defendant's representation for a substantial period of time, often years."
The US Supreme Court's denial of the petition for review is not a ruling on the merits. Weis can appeal the issues if he is convicted and petition the federal courts for habeas corpus relief.
The case began with the arrest of Weis in February, 2006, for the murder of an elderly woman in her home. After the prosecution announced it was seeking the death penalty, two capital defense lawyers, Robert H. Citronberg and Thomas M. West, were assigned by the Georgia's indigent defense agency, the Public Defender Standards Council, to defend Weis. They undertook representation in October, 2006, and filed and litigated motions, investigated the case, met with Weis, visited his home in West Virginia and were planning his defense. However, in March 2007, the Public Defender Standards Council announced that it had run out of funds for investigative and expert expenses.
At a hearing on November 26, 2007, without any notice to Weis or his two lawyers, the District Attorney who was seeking to have Weis executed moved to have his lawyers removed from representing him and replaced by two lawyers from the local public defender office. The trial judge, Johnnie Caldwell, Jr., granted the motion without giving Weis or his lawyers, who had been caught by surprise, any opportunity to respond to it. (Judge Caldwell has since resigned because of his sexual harassment of a woman attorney.)
The public defenders protested their appointment from the outset. They filed three motions to withdraw. One of the public defenders was not certified to handle capital cases and was “co-counsel, second chair and fill-in,” in over 400 cases, half of them felonies. The other public defender was administrator of a four-county public defender office and was handling 93 felony cases.
Weis eventually secured the reinstatement of Citronberg and West as his counsel after filing a petition for a writ of mandamus against Judge Caldwell. Even though the lawyers resumed representation in April, 2008, the public defender agency did not make any funds available for the defense of the case until June, 2009. Even then, it provided only $115,000, about 40% of the $255,000 budget for the case.
The petition for Writ of Certiorari to the United States Supreme Court is here.
The Amicus Brief filed by Norman S. Fletcher, Charles R. Morgan, Emmet J. Bondurant, C. Wilson Dubsoe, Donald Frederick Oliver, E. Wycliffe Orr, Sr. & Edward Hine, Jr. can be read here.
Weis' Response to the State.
Read the Supplemental Brief Weis vs Georgia.
The Motion to Reconsider the Revised and Final Opinion of the Georgia Supreme Court can be read here.
The revised and final majority opinion of the Georgia Supreme Court, as well as the dissent, can be read here.
The Motion on behalf of Jamie Weis to Reconsider the original opinion can be read here.
The original opinions of the Georgia Supreme Court can be read here. The majority opinion has since been withdrawn and replaced by the revised opinion above.
A video of oral argument at the Georgia Supreme Court is available here.
A description of the arguments at the Georgia Supreme Court, including the briefs to that Court, can be read here.
Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer, Georgia death row inmate denied high court review, October 4, 2010
Greg Land, Supreme Court Denies Ga. Death Penalty Appeal, Fulton County Daily Report, Oct. 06, 2010
E. Wycliffe Orr, Sr., Georgia’s Indefensible Indigent Defense System – A Defense in Name Only? American Constitution Society Blog, Sept 21, 2010
New York Times: Defendants Squeezed by Georgia’s Tight Budget
The National Law Journal: Georgia Murder Case Shines Spotlight on Nation's
Indigent Defense Systems