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Rights groups slam commitment to indigent defense

ATLANTA - Georgia budget writers aren't adequately funding the statewide indigent defense system the General Assembly created four years ago, civil rights activists charged Wednesday.

But Gov. Sonny Perdue, who signed the 2003 bill forming the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, said the state is spending much more to defend poor people accused of crimes than before the system came into being.

The Georgia State Conference of the NAACP held a news conference outside the Capitol less than a week after the head of death penalty cases for the state council quit his post.

Chris Adams cited funding shortfalls in his portion of the agency, largely brought on by the rising costs associated with the prosecution of Brian Nichols, the accused Fulton County Courthouse gunman.

The tab in the Nichols case thus far has been more than $1.8 million for an agency trying to live within a $35.4 million budget.

The result has been several delays in Nichols' murder trial and the elimination of 41 full-time jobs, including nine assistant public defender positions across Georgia.

"It's hard to comprehend that even as Georgia sends her sons and daughters around the world to defend the Constitution, state leaders are skirting their responsibility on constitutionally mandated indigent defense," said Edward DuBose, state conference president for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The law that created the system limited its funding to what the state collects each year in criminal and civil fines and court fees.

That came to $43.8 million last year, about half of what the state and Georgia counties combined spent on indigent defense.

Civil rights and human rights groups are urging the state to fully fund the system and take that burden off the counties.

But Perdue said the state already is spending about twice what it spent before the system was established.

He said Georgia is obligated to comply with the Constitution but can't afford to make indigent defense a bottomless pit.

"Particularly the capital defenders interpret that constitutional right as, 'You just sign a check and let us fill in the amount,' Perdue said. "There's got to be some balance there .... I don't think we have an obligation to sign a blank check for every defense attorney and every expert witness that they want to have."

The governor's fellow Republicans on a legislative study committee now examining the issue have put forth similar arguments.

But NAACP state conference spokesman Francys Johnson said GOP leaders' reluctance to boost the system's funding could hurt efforts to prosecute indigent defendants in capital cases, something no pro-death penalty politician would want.

"I really think this plan is going to backfire on them," he said. "It's going to weaken the legitimacy of the death penalty in Georgia."

Representatives of Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Center for Human Rights also appeared at Wednesday's news conference.