Cordele circuit indigent defense case begins -, South Georgia News, Weather, Sports

Cordele circuit indigent defense case begins

December 16, 2003

Cordele-- It's a case that's drawing national attention to a Crisp County courtroom. The Southern Center for Human Rights, along with the NAACP, have joined in a lawsuit claiming poor people in Crisp, Ben Hill, Dooly and Wilcox Counties don't get adequate legal representation.

They went before a judge today. "I think this is as bad as it gets and it just doesn't meet what the constitution says is required," says Plaintiff's Attorney Stephen Bright. Lawyers for both sides met in court today.

It was just a status hearing, but the courtroom was packed with people, many who say they have been impacted by an unfair indigent defense system in the Cordele Circuit.

Bright says, "There are just two part-time lawyers which is so remarkable, we see smaller circuits with fewer cases that have four full time lawyers."

Stephen Bright is the Director of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, and the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in this case. Bright says his group has sued six other judicial circuits in Georgia over their faulty public defense system-- and won.

"People are entitled to a lawyer who will meet with them soon after their arrest, answer their questions, explain things to them, and know something about them so at sentencing it's not just in the dark but they are actually being sentenced by a judge that knows something about there background," he said.

The case against the Cordele Circuit grabbed the attention of the National NAACP, which has since joined the suit. Hannibal Kemerer, who overseas NAACP cases in the South, says there is only one way to fix the indigent defense system-- in court, "I think the only way to really address this is this way and the only way to address this on a systemic basis is this way."

The case will be addressed by the court-- although a defense attorney for the prosecutors filed a motion to dismiss the case. But, the people in this courtroom say they won't dismiss this case easily.

Besides the motion to dismiss, the judge is also considering motions by the defense to narrow the scope of the plaintiff's request for information. The Judge did not give a date when he will rule on these motions. Attorneys for the defendants declined an on-camera interview.

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