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Southern Center for Human Rights Files Lawsuit Amid the Georgia Public Defender Council’s Refusal to Comply with Open Records Act

Southern Center for Human Rights Files Lawsuit Amid the Georgia Public Defender Council’s Refusal to Comply with Open Records Act

Media Contact: Atteeyah Hollie; [email protected]

(Atlanta, GA) – On June 5, as part of the Southern Center for Human Rights’ (SCHR) investigation into the Georgia Public Defender Council’s (GPDC) persistent failure to provide lawyers for accused people who cannot afford them, SCHR and Caplan Cobb, LLC, filed a lawsuit under the Georgia Open Records Act against GPDC Director Omotayo Alli due to the agency’s repeated violations of Georgia’s open records laws. The lawsuit alleges that GPDC, in response to SCHR’s repeated requests for documents shedding light on the denial of conflict-free (C-3) counsel statewide, violated the Georgia Open Records Act by charging unreasonable fees, delaying the production of records for months, failing to produce all responsive records, and improperly withholding records in its custody.

In recent years, it has become clear that GPDC has failed to fulfill its constitutional duty to timely provide C-3 counsel to accused people who cannot afford legal representation, which has left hundreds of Georgians detained for months or years without an attorney, without any meaningful progress in their criminal cases, and without any sense of how long this indefinite denial of their rights will continue. Through SCHR’s investigation, we have learned that over 600 people are awaiting C-3 counsel, and many more have a lawyer in name only. Put simply, the state of C-3 representation in Georgia has reached a breaking point.

In August 2022, SCHR sent a letter to GPDC describing the agency’s failure to provide hundreds of indigent people with C-3 counsel and requesting GPDC take immediate action to remedy the problem. Our concerns, largely based on GPDC’s own records, were echoed by media reports and complaints from people who described languishing in jails for months or years without constitutionally mandated counsel.

In March 2023, SCHR again wrote to GPDC about three individuals facing sentences of up to life without parole who had been detained in the Dougherty County Jail for long periods of time and were awaiting the appointment of C-3 counsel. One of the detained men, Maurice Jimerson, has been in jail for ten years. In that letter, to which Alli has not responded, SCHR asked that GPDC immediately assign counsel to mount a defense against these serious charges.

Over the past fifteen months, SCHR has submitted several public records requests to GPDC as part of a larger effort to understand how this crisis is affecting people in jails across Georgia. GPDC produced documents and information quickly and relatively inexpensively in response to our initial three requests. Then, following an increase in public scrutiny after our August 2022 warning letter, GPDC began requiring exorbitant fees, providing long estimated timelines, and claiming an inability to deliver entire categories of records that they had previously produced. They even claimed they could not provide SCHR with the name of their records custodian, even though their correspondence with SCHR was signed by someone identified as their “records custodian.”

“I’ve joined the Southern Center in lawsuits addressing the state of indigent defense in Georgia,” said Mike Caplan of Caplan Cobb, LLC, who, along with SCHR, represented a class of indigent defendants in Flournoy v. Georgia, which led to systemic reform of Georgia’s indigent defense system in 2011. “We should not be forced to file a lawsuit for public records. GPDC should be solving this problem, ensuring access to representation in Georgia.”

This hostility to the Open Records Act has no place in a state with a strong presumption of open government. It is imperative that the agency tasked with fulfilling the Sixth Amendment right to counsel in Georgia comply with the Open Records Act and produce public records so that Georgians can understand both how serious the problem of denial of adequate access to conflict-free counsel has become and what, if any, steps the state is taking to remedy this crisis.

“This year marks the 20th anniversary of Georgia’s Indigent Defense Act and the 60th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case guaranteeing all accused people a lawyer, regardless of income, yet we’re warehousing people with little to no income in jails across Georgia without lawyers,” said SCHR Deputy Director Atteeyah Hollie.

“At a time when full transparency is needed to solve the current crisis, GPDC is spending limited resources on records fights and tens of thousands of dollars on PR firms to polish its image and shield the scope of the problem from the public eye. Georgians deserve better.”