ATLANTA -- Georgia's highest court has again struck down a Gwinnett man's attempt to have his capital murder case tossed out, but justices warn the case could serve as a bellwether for troubles ahead due to Georgia's "chronically underfunded" indigent defense system.
The Georgia Supreme Court has unanimously upheld a previous ruling against Khan Dinh Phan, of Duluth, who faces the death penalty and has argued that his charges should be dismissed because his constitutional right to a speedy trial was violated.
Phan was arrested nearly seven years ago, and has awaited trial at the Gwinnett County Jail since. He's accused of shooting Hung Thai, 37, and his 2-year-old son, Hugh, execution-style in their Lilburn home in December 2004.
In a 22-page opinion published Monday, justices pointed to a 2008 Supreme Court decision as precedent and concluded that, overall, the government and the defense shared responsibility for Phan's case not yet reaching a courtroom. It's the second time since 2009 the high court has ruled against Phan in his pre-trial appeals to derail the case, or to have the death penalty dropped.
But the opinion's author, Chief Justice Carol Hunstein, said the case should serve as a call-to-action in which a "financially strained indigent defense system operating within a recession-era state budget" must be addressed.
"The fact that the dismissal of murder charges has had to be legitimately considered for reasons so far removed from the accused's guilt or innocence underscores the stakes involved," the opinion says. "We can only hope that those within the branches of government empowered to remedy these institutional problems will make it a priority to do so."
With Phan's case, justices warned that the "clock is still ticking" and that further delays caused by a lack of state funding could tip the scales in Phan's favor.
Phan's lawyers, Bruce Harvey and Christopher Adams, have pointed to the cash-strapped Georgia Public Defender Standards Council as the reason for the delays. The council was formed in 2005 to assist indigent defendants, and to replace the fragmented county-run systems of the past
The attorneys argue the funding shortage has left them without key resources, expert witnesses and the means to interview a witness in Vietnam, in addition to their fees.
They claim Gwinnett Superior Court erred in 2009 and 2010 by refusing to dismiss Phan's charges on those grounds and ordering that the attorneys be replaced with public defenders who were more readily available. The trial court's first decision was brought to Supreme Court justices and sent back.
Prosecutors including Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter have said the delays were the fault of the defense -- not the state's defender system -- who have filed numerous requests to postpone hearings due to scheduling conflicts. Those conflicts have included a vacation and random meetings, the state argues.
The victims' wife and mother, Hoangoah Ta, was also shot in the head and cast into a coma. She awoke seven weeks later and identified Phan as the killer in phone interviews from Vietnam, Gwinnett authorities have said.
Phan reportedly broke in the home and carried out the killings as revenge for a gambling debt. He was married at the time with three children and operated successful nail salons in Lawrenceville and Forsyth County.
Phan's case joins one other pending death penalty case in Gwinnett.
Prosecutors are seeking a death sentence for quadruple-homicide suspect Richard Ringold. He's accused of shooting his victims -- which included his girlfriend and her 11-year-old daughter -- execution-style during a domestic rampage at a Lawrenceville home in 2009.
Justices ruled that the Gwinnett court acted within its discretion during earlier phases of Phan's appeal. But Hunstein emphasized in the opinion that the ruling should not be construed as an endorsement of a crippled system.
"The interests of no one neither prosecutors nor defendants, victims nor taxpayers are served by the uncertainty and delay attending to a chronically underfunded indigent defense system," the opinion reads.