County moves forward with indigent defense plan

By Ed Brock

Clayton County is moving ahead with plans for a new indigent defense system for State Court.

The plan involves selecting a law firm to provide legal defense for people accused of a crime who cannot afford their own attorney. Last week, county attorney Don Comer's office picked four area attorneys to serve on a committee to interview the six law firms that submitted proposals for providing the service.

Those attorneys are Melvyn Jack Williams of Forest Park and George T. Brown, Jr., Edwin Stanley Kemp, Jr. and Leon Hicks, all of Jonesboro.

Williams said the committee had its first meeting Thursday, so it's still too early to say exactly what qualifications they'll be looking for in the law firms.

"I would think it's experience for one," Williams said. "What kind of attorneys are in the firm, what are their ties to the county."

Williams said they will certainly be looking for a firm that can handle the work.

"We are anticipating a huge caseload," Williams said.

As part of the "Georgia Indigent Defense Act" approved last year by the state legislature, the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council is set to replace the Georgia Indigent Defense Council and begin operation by 2005. The new council will establish, set standards for and oversee public defender offices in the state's 47 judicial circuits, according to the new law.

The new Public Defender's Office will be required by the statute to cover all felony cases, probation revocations and delinquency cases in Juvenile Court and Superior Court, said Jim Martin, chief legal officer for the Public Defender Standards Council.

The deadline for submitting proposals was Nov. 19, and six law firms submitted proposals by that time.

Those firms are Lister & Holt, Kaine & Jones; G. Glaves-Innis & Associates; Reed, Scott & Associates; Glaze, Harris, Arnold & Mack, PC and The Fuller Law Group LLC; and King, Grant & Associates, all of Jonesboro.

Because of the relatively low number of applicants, all of the firms will be put on the "short list" for consideration, and each will be interviewed by the selection committee after presenting a "statement of qualification."

Jonesboro attorney D. Lee Smith said he is part of a group of attorneys opposed to the plan. Smith says the idea of it violates the principle of the Indigent Defense Act which seeks to do away with contract defender systems that he said were corrupt.

Smith sent requests under the Georgia Open Records Act for Comer to produce information on the proposals sent by the six law firms. He now takes issue with the fact that some of the copies of proposals that he received had material "redacted," or removed, from them.

Comer said that the individual firms redacted the material, saying the information involved trade secrets.

In a letter, Smith calls the old contract systems "rife with cronyism, patronage and unseemly relationships between judges and defense lawyers."

Comer said that the problem with contract indigent defense systems in the past, as far as he understands, came from the fact that the judges in the system were parties to the contracts. That called into question how impartial the indigent defense attorneys would be in those systems.

"Our judges are so far removed from this process that they are chilled," Comer said.

Attorneys that are currently on the county's indigent defense panel may still be called to handle indigent cases in Superior and Juvenile Court in instances where the caseload becomes too great for the new Public Defender's Office or in "conflict cases." A conflict case is one in which two defendants in the same case have different positions and need separate lawyers. Also, Comer said previously that the Public Defenders Office would not handle deprivation cases in Juvenile Court.

Williams said that as a member of the panel of attorneys that provided public defense previously, he understands some of the worries of Smith and other private attorneys.

"I guess a lot of attorneys feel like the current system is good enough so why are we changing it," Williams said. "I think we're going to have attorneys that are just overloaded. We'll just have to wait and see."