ATLANTA - The state Supreme Court Tuesday heard arguments in a Gwinnett County murder case sidetracked by both the financial woes facing Georgia's indigent defense system and contempt charges against two defense lawyers.
District Attorney Danny Porter is seeking the death penalty for Donald Sanders and his sister-in-law, Kayla Sanders, in the 2004 stabbing death of a Snellville widow.
At stake Tuesday was whether the state agency in charge of defending death penalty cases should be forced to provide the Sanders' lawyers with budgetary records on 49 pending capital cases.
Walt Britt of Buford, Donald Sanders' lawyer, subpoenaed those records from the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council after the cash-strapped agency cut the hourly fee it pays death penalty lawyers from $125 to $95.
Britt also sought records of all payments made for the defense of alleged Fulton County Courthouse gunman Brian Nichols. Last winter, the council cited the hugely expensive Nichols case as a factor in funding shortages that were affecting the agency.
Britt argued Tuesday that the documents he is seeking would show the state was spending far more on some death penalty defendants than others, depriving his client of the right to a fair trial.
"There were different classifications of death penalty defendants," he said. "This information was relevant to enable Mr. Sanders to show that he was not being provided with adequate funds."
Gwinnett Superior Court Judge Billy Ray sided with Britt last February, ordering the council to produce the documents.
But the Fulton County judge presiding in the Nichols case subsequently issued a second order forbidding the council to deliver the material.
The council's lawyer, Robert Remar, told the justices Tuesday the subpoenaed documents not only were irrelevant to Sanders' case but releasing them would violate the rights of the 49 death penalty defendants.
"It involves the production of privileged information," Remar said. "The privilege will be absolutely lost if this information is produced."
The court also took up contempt of court charges Ray lodged against Britt and Douglas Ramseur, another defense lawyer in the case.
Ray cited the two for refusing to move forward with pretrial motions the judge had scheduled. They claimed their involvement in the funding dispute with the council - their employer - constituted a conflict of interest that would no longer allow them to represent the Sanders defendants.
"To proceed with death penalty motions with attorneys with divided interests ... puts the death penalty defendant in peril," said Christine Anne Koehler, who represented Britt on the contempt charge before the Supreme Court.
Brian Steel, who represented Ramseur, went so far as to say his client could have been found guilty of a professional ethics violation and disbarred for going forward with a case when he knew he had a conflict of interest.
Both Koehler and Steel noted that several months after Ray found the two lawyers in contempt, the judge ruled that Ramseur indeed did have a conflict of interest and removed him from the case.
But Porter said lawyers are not allowed to defy a judge's order to proceed, regardless of the merits of their reasons for hesitating.
"It's not the appropriateness of the order that frames the debate," the district attorney said. "It is the disruption or interruption of the proceedings."
The court isn't expected to rule for at least a few weeks.