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Friday, September 4, 2009 - 12:37pm

Inmates Still Without Counsel, Human Rights Group Says

For up to eight months, about 300 defendants waiting for trial in Northeast Georgia sat in jail without a lawyer. A judge ordered the state to provide representation.

The state says it complied. But at a hearing Thursday, a human rights group said many of those people haven't met with their lawyers.

Most of the defendants were involved in what are known as "conflict-cases." The idea is, when two or more defendants are involved in the same felony case, the same lawyer can't represent both if their defense would involve a conflict of interest.

In past years, the Public Defenders Standard Council, which is in charge of Georgia's Public Defender system, contracted with private attorneys to represent one of those defendants.

But the Council didn't renew contracts with three private lawyers last year, so the defendants sat in jail.

The state says they have fixed that problem, but Sara Totonchi, with the Southern Center for Human Rights, disagrees.

"The folks who were in jail didn't know they had attorneys," Totonchi said.

The public defenders office would not comment on the case. But in comments before the court Thursday, the attorney for the state says those defendants now have lawyers.

A judge will review these cases in three months to determine whether or not the inmates have counsel.

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