Georgia's Death Penalty System in Crisis Over Funding

Just two years after the creation of the Georgia Office of the Capital Defender, which successfully defended 30 death penalty cases in 2006 without a single client being sentenced to death, state budget cuts have left the attorneys with less than half the resources needed to carry out their current case load. The office has been asked to oversee the defense of 80 clients this year, including Brian Nichols, who faces the death penalty for a highly publicized 2005 Fulton County courthouse incident in which four people were killed. According to public records, expenses associated with the Nichols case have consumed nearly half the budget of the Capital Defender this year. The office has been asked to represent the other 79 clients with the remaining money, an amount that attorneys warn will negatively impact the quality of representation provided to those facing the death penalty.

Christopher Adams recently stepped down as director of the Office of the Capital Defender because he said Georgia made it nearly impossible for the office to function. He noted that the Public Defender Standards Council, which oversees the defender office, made it clear that they will not allow the staff to argue for more money for their clients in court. "My belief is that the only solution to this problem that both protects our clients and complies with the Sixth Amendment is to go to Court to tell the truth about the lack of adequate resources," Adams observed.

The office was created in response to criticisms of Georgia's chronically under-funded death penalty representation system that was repeatedly found negligent in defending capital cases. Carmen Hernandez, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said that the state's failure to adequately fund its death penalty representation office is a sharp departure from the goals that led Georgia to establish the program two years ago. "We are incredibly concerned that a state which was on such a positive track has so quickly defaulted on its promise to create a working criminal justice system. Georgia has refused to fund its system and, as a result, Georgia’s system is once again broken. It has gone from leading light to disgrace in a few short years,” Hernandez said.

Though Georgia has established a state commission to study the issue of financing for indigent defense, the group has not acted to address the current capital defense shortfall.
(New York Times, September 7, 2007). See Costs and Representation.