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Death penalty trials delayed

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January 11, 2008

A showdown is brewing between the state legislature and public defense attorneys. Money for public defenders in Georgia is drying up and forcing delays in high-profile death penalty 

Remember accused Atlanta courthouse killer Brian Nichols? He's charged with breaking out of jail and killing four people in 2005? The state is ready to prosecute him, but his trial is on hold.

"The defense attorneys claim we want to have the same resources as the state, and that's probably not going to ever be practical. You cant develop a whole crime lab for an individual defendant in a case," says Dougherty County Assistant District Attorney Greg Edwards.

He says Nichols' public defenders' fight to save Nichols is becoming so costly, it's affecting other major death penalty cases.

"Some of the cases in Georgia are on standby to see how the supreme court and the legislature deals with these issues."

Take the case of Jamie Underwood. He's accused of murdering six Hispanic men in Tifton in 2005. His trial was supposed to start next month. But the judge postponed it because there's not enough money to pay defense lawyers for all their work.

So how could one case, Brian Nichols' trial, use up so much money?

"The judge has been asked to require that the defense attorneys provide some sort of itemized listing of their expenses and the judge does not want to do this because it might reveal their trial strategy," Edwards said.

It could all boil down to the state legislature. Will they come up with more money for public defenders in death penalty trials or will they consider it an unreasonable expense?

"Where do you draw the line and who makes that decision of where the line is drawn?" Edwards asks.

Some speculate it could be a push for those against the death penalty claiming those trials will cost the state too much money.

"Some crimes it may be necessary to have that option for a jury to consider," Edwards adds.

Who will pay for it and to what extent now has to be determined.

Dougherty County has one death penalty trial coming up. Edwards says it's too early to tell whether it will be affected by the Nichols case.

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