Deadly errors: Judge sees dilemma in death penalty cases

SUWANEE -- A Gwinnett County judge warned local death penalty cases could be marred because of the state's indigent defense system.

While Gwinnett County was able to opt out of the use of the state system for most cases, defendants in death penalty cases are still tied to the system, which is in a funding crisis.

Earlier this week, several defendants filed a lawsuit alleging they were without lawyers. Locally, Gwinnett Judge Billy Ray asked legislators to take action to help the system.

"We really are coming to a crisis situation in Georgia," Ray said during a meeting with the county's General Assembly delegation.

The county currently has two death penalty cases pending, and Ray said both are affected by the issue.

A defendant is without a lawyer in the case involving the August 2004 murder of 67-year-old Snellville woman Doris Joyner, Ray said.

Kayla Sanders and her brother-in-law Donald "Steve" Sanders are still awaiting trial in that case, the district attorney's office said.

In another local case, attorneys are waiting on money for special investigators to help with a murder involving the Vietnamese community.

Khanh Phan is charged with the Dec. 29 shooting death of Hung Thai and his 2-year-old son. Thai's wife Hoan Joanh Ta survived the incident, which prosecutors allege centered on gambling debts.

Ray said prosecutors agree that the investigators are needed, but the trial has been "brought to a standstill" because the state indigent defense office has not come up with the money.

While Ray said local judges are patient with the funding issue, he said there is concern that a federal judge will get involved and take the death penalty option off the table because of the right to a speedy trial.

"We're really concerned about what is going to happen to it, if it doesn't get addressed," he said. "They are entitled to a fair trial. We can't provide them a trial of any kind without a lawyer."