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Tuesday, March 2, 2010 - 12:21pm

Judge to Hear Public Defenders Case

Tomorrow a judge in Elberton will hear whether poor people in the state are getting proper representation.

The court action comes four years after the state revamped its public defender system. But advocates say it is underfunded to the point where it violates the constitution.

It's evening and the McDonalds in Elberton is empty. Chris Cantwell sinks down in his seat, Georgia Bulldogs cap pulled low. He talks about the time he got stuck in Elberton County jail.

"I kept talking to the guards and asking them to bring me to the jailer there. And every time I talked to him I'd ask for a bond and he would try to, you know, make a phone call or something to the DA to see about getting me a bond, but he wasn't putting that much effort into it."

Cantwell was charged with breaking into a car. He asked for a public defender because he couldn’t afford an attorney. But he wasn’t appointed one. The worst part, he says, was just waiting.

"Just the feeling of being stuck in there without a bond not knowing how long it's going to be... people telling me stories, oh it could by six months to a year before my first court date that I'll go to... not knowing when I am going to get out... just sitting there, wondering when I'm going to get out."

Cantwell is the lead plaintiff in a class-action law suit filed by the Southern Center for Human Rights. It claims Georgia violates the constitution by not providing lawyers for poor defendants in conflict cases.

“Conflict cases can take anyone of a myriad of forms,” says Joel Shiver, the head of the public defenders office in Elberton.

“The easiest to recognize is if two people are say, riding down the road in the car, and they get pulled over, and they find a sack of cocaine on the front seat between them. They charge both of them. The driver is going to be pointing the finger at the passenger and the passenger is going to be pointing the finger at the driver. One lawyer cannot represent both of those people pointing the finger at each other."

When such conflicts arise, the state is obligated to find another attorney. But Shiver was told Georgia's Public Defenders Office didn’t have money to hire more lawyers.

"I was devastated. And it wasn’t just me. It was a number of public defenders around the state who found themselves in a similar situation."

The budget cuts made for a disastrous situation in Elberton, says Gerry Weber. He’s with the Southern Center for Human Rights, which is filing the class-action lawsuit.

“There were about 300 people who were sometimes sitting in jail for months at a time and they had no lawyer at all.”

The Public Defenders Standard Council would not comment because of ongoing litigation.

The Southern Center contends Georgia has a systemic problem of failing to provide lawyers for poor defendants. Weber argues the state should drop charges against them if it can’t afford to appoint a lawyer.

That’s a bad idea, says John Jones. He represents the Elberton District Attorney, who is named in the lawsuit.

"I mean, you got some pretty nasty people in there. You don’t let them out in mass to terrorize the community just because they haven’t had an attorney."

But Jones has history against him. In 2002, an Atlanta judge ordered the release of hundreds of inmates held in jail for several days because they didn’t see a lawyer or get a court date.

Rulings like this forced lawmakers to revamp the state's public defenders system four years ago. But budget cuts - complicated by the Brian Nichols shooting case - depleted its budget.

As for Cantwell, he was eventually granted bond and released from prison – two and a half month’s after he went in.

"I lost my job, my place to stay, my dog… I lost a lot."

He eventually got assigned a lawyer.

The case of Cantwell v. Crawford, will be heard tomorrow in Elberton.