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County picks state court indigent defender

By Ed Brock

Criminal defendants in Clayton County State Court who can't afford a lawyer have a new defender.

The county has selected the law firm of Lister & Holt to handle indigent defense in that court for $894,000 a year.

"That's going to save the county somewhere in the neighborhood of $300,000 to $400,000 a year," said Steve Lister, a partner in the firm.

Clayton County's Public Defender Office, headed by Christine A. Van Dross, has begun handling indigent defense for felony cases in Superior Court and Juvenile Court cases as mandated by the Georgia Indigent Defense Act. Lister's firm, which already provides the same service in Henry County State Court, will begin defending those accused of misdemeanors in State Court beginning Aug. 1.

"We're going to be hiring additional attorneys," Lister said, adding that they would hire five to six more attorneys to handle the Clayton County case load.

They have four attorneys on staff now in Henry County where the firm has been providing indigent defense since may of 2004, Lister said.

Previously indigent defendants in both courts were represented by a panel of lawyers who were called upon on a case by case basis. While the Indigent Defense Act does not apply to State Court the county began looking into a new system last year because there had been complaints from judges in that court and defendants about the panel system, former county attorney Don Comer said last year. Those complaints included reports that some of the panel attorneys were hard to reach.

The county solicited proposals from area law firms and received responses from six firms, including Lister & Holt. A committee of local attorneys interviewed the firms.

At the time the entire process drew criticism from at least one attorney, D. Lee Smith, who didn't like the secrecy surrounding some of the proposals and filed an injunction demanding that the county turn over parts of the proposals he had requested and been denied. Some of the firms involved claimed the information Smith was requesting included trade secrets they wanted to have redacted (not released to the public).

On Friday Smith said he would have to revisit the lawsuit he'd filed in the case and would think about his response to Lister's appointment over the weekend.

"I figured this thing was dead," Smith said.

Smith said he thought the committee set to review the applicants had recommended another firm, Reed, Scott & Associates, over Lister & Holt.

The county's current attorney Michael Smith said there had been some confusion, that the committee had recommended Reed, Scott & Associates and the county commission had actually started talking to that firm about a contract.

Then on Feb. 8 at a commission work session questions arose about the fee portion of both firms' proposals. Reed, Scott & Associates revised their fee portion to lower it, but Lister & Holt was still lower.

Along with providing defense for the $894,000 annual fee there was also no limit to the number of cases the firm would handle for that cost, Comer said. The Reed, Scott & Associates offer was for a $930,000 annual fee with a cap of 2,200 cases a year before charging extra.