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Nichols case plaguing public defender system

ATLANTA - Lawmakers shouldn't let the growing costs of the Brian Nichols murder case lead them to dismantle a statewide indigent defense system still in its infancy, former Georgia Chief Justice Norman Fletcher said Thursday.

"Y'all have put a great system together," Fletcher told members of a joint legislative study committee. "Tweak it where it needs tweaking. ... (But) you did the right thing."

The study committee was formed earlier this year to look for solutions to chronic budget shortfalls that have plagued the statewide network of public defenders the General Assembly created in 2003.

The legislation arose from recommendations of a commission headed by Fletcher, which found that the previous mishmash of separately run county indigent defense offices wasn't meeting constitutional standards.

In fact, several lawsuits had been filed at that time in state and federal courts charging that defendants were receiving inadequate representation.

The Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, which runs the program, has complained from the get-go that lawmakers are underfunding the system.

Indeed, its annual budget has declined in each of the last three years, forcing layoffs. The council is seeking an increase of $6 million for next year from its current $40 million appropriation.

But the Nichols case changed the dynamics from funding shortfalls to an outright crisis.

The costs of defending Nichols, charged with four murders in a two-day shooting spree that started at the Fulton County Courthouse, have reached nearly $2 million, including out-of-state lawyers, investigators and expert witnesses.

The council's board adopted a resolution last month declaring that it can't afford to pay any more toward Nichols' defense, touching off a clash with the judge presiding over the case.

Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, a member of the study committee, said the council failed to exercise proper oversight of the Nichols defense, which should make the legislature think twice before sinking more tax dollars into the program.

"This thing has spiraled out of control," he said. "Nobody on the council saw that, pointed it out and corrected it."

But Fletcher said the Nichols case was an aberration, a series of killings that received intense media publicity as they were unfolding.

"Half of Georgia was watching someone running around Atlanta shooting," Fletcher said. "You don't see this type of thing occurring in a 48-hour period. ... We're caught in a situation where one case is causing a problem."

Other witnesses at Thursday's daylong hearing said the statewide indigent defense system has been a better bargain for taxpayers than the half dozen single-county judicial circuits that were allowed to opt out of the state network.

Jeff Bramlett, president-elect of the State Bar of Georgia, said the statewide system is spending an average of $378 per case, while the opt-out counties are paying more than $600 a case.

"We stay within the budget that we have," said Gary Bowman, public defender in Henry County's Flint Judicial Circuit, which is spending $374 defending the average case. "My county is extremely happy with our program."

But David Lipscomb, public defender in Gwinnett, one of the opt-out counties, said county officials decided that spending about $600 per case - which comes to about $5 million a year - is worth it to avoid the funding uncertainties that are affecting the state system.

"We have a $1 billion budget," he said. "Five million dollars is not small change, but it's affordable."