View Full Version : MS Supreme Court: Indigent defense ruling upheld

07-22-2005, 09:31 AM

High court says state doesn't have to help pay poor defendants' legal fees

From staff and wire reports

The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled Thursday the state isn't obligated to help counties pay the legal tabs of the poor charged with crimes.
In a 6-2 decision, the high court sided with Circuit Judge Ann Lamar, who said she would not declare unconstitutional a state law requiring local governments to pay for indigent defense.

In 1999, Quitman County sued the state after being forced to borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay legal expenses for Robert Simon and Anthony Carr, sentenced to death row for the Feb. 12, 1990, torture and burning deaths of four members of a family from Lambert. To pay for the trial and appeal, the county had to take out a $150,000 loan and raise taxes for three years.

The killings of the Parkers still anger many residents in Marks, such as Sandy Pruitt. "They should have been put to death themselves," she said.

She said she remains puzzled why Quitman County got stuck with the legal bills: "I never did understand it."

Chris Klotz of Jackson, the attorney for the county, called Mississippi's current system a hodgepodge that can devastate rural counties. The court's decision, he said, "is not good news for poor people or for people who can't afford attorneys. The state needs to seriously revamp (the present system)."

Lawyers may ask the court to reconsider, he said, and "there is the potential to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court."

The ruling came the same day the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Southern Center for Human Rights sued the city of Gulfport, accused the Gulfport Municipal Court of routinely incarcerating poor people unable to pay their fines and violating their right to counsel.

As a result of these practices, the Harrison County Jail has become a modern day debtors' prison, said Miriam Gohara, assistant counsel for the fund. "We are very concerned that poor people with old fines for minor violations of the law, such as riding a bicycle without a light, are being jailed for their inability to pay, and worse yet they are not being provided with a lawyer before sentencing, in clear violation of the Constitution."

In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Clarence Earl Gideon that right to counsel in criminal cases was necessary to achieve a fair system of justice. In his initial trial, Gideon represented himself because he could not afford an attorney. After his conviction was overturned, he was retried, and his appointed attorney discovered new witnesses and won an acquittal.

The Legislature passed an $11 million statewide program, which would have placed a public defender in each Circuit Court district, but lawmakers never funded the program, and it was eventually repealed. (Nearly half the states are funding such programs.)

A 2004 study by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund concluded full-time public defenders could help generate $5.3 million in tax revenue by getting suspects out of jail sooner and back to work.

Quitman County argued the Legislature's failure to fund a statewide public defender program violated the U.S. Constitution by not providing defendants representation as the high court ruled in the Gideon case.

"Everybody deserves to have a fair share in court, no matter whether they're innocent or guilty," Klotz said. "That's the reason we fought wars. To say people who are charged with crimes shouldn't get as fair a trial as someone who makes $100,000 does a disservice to those who've gone to fight."

Judge Lamar said Quitman County never proved its main points: that the county's two part-time public defenders were overburdened and gave their clients poor representation because of a bad system.

The Mississippi attorney general's office argued Quitman County was not seeking relief for poor defendants but relief for its taxpayers.

The Supreme Court said part of the expense to the counties was alleviated when the Office of Post-Conviction Counsel and the Office of Capital Defense Counsel were created in 2000. A 2005 law created the Office of Indigent Appeals, which now handles appeals for indigent defendants convicted of noncapital crimes.

Chief Justice Jim Smith, writing for the court, said, if Quitman County officials had been concerned about indigent defense, they would have budgeted more for it. He said county officials also failed to prove county indigent defense systems have resulted in widespread ineffective assistance of counsel.

Smith's predecessor, Edwin Pittman, had recommended passage of a statewide system along with a judicial advisory committee, but Smith wrote the high court had no authority to take on the matter: "The county urges this court to implement a remedy that falls within the purview of the Legislature instead of the judiciary."

Justice James E. Graves, in a dissent joined by Justice Jess H. Dickinson, said Quitman County showed deficiencies in the indigent defense system that justified some remedy from the state.

"Because the (U.S.) Supreme Court has deemed the right to counsel for indigents in state prosecutions to be fundamental, the state of Mississippi bears the ultimate responsibility to ensure that this right is preserved," Graves wrote.

Graves said the flaws in Quitman County's system are "the result of the fundamental problem in a part-time, county-based system that lacks state funding and uniformity.

"In essence, the state of Mississippi has failed to establish or fund a system of indigent defense that is equipped to provide all defendants with the tools of an adequate defense and has therefore fallen short of its constitutional obligation."