This story is part three of a series about the constitutionally-guaranteed access to legal representation in court — and the challenges that arise when the supply of defenders is limited. To read/watch the first piece in the series, click here. For the second, click here.
(InvestigateTV) - In a packed Atlanta courtroom this past September, a Fulton County judge asked deputies to bring Tony Turner before him.
The 27-year-old was in custody for sex trafficking charges that he said he did not commit. Turner was one of 10 charged with the same crime. He had sat in jail for nearly five months with no court-appointed attorney to represent him as required by law.
But deputies forgot to bring Turner to the court that morning, so Janie Weaver argued the case on the defendant’s behalf. She filed a motion to dismiss the case, citing violations of his right to counsel under the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment.
“I spoke to you several times,” Weaver told Fulton County Superior Court Judge Eric Dunaway. “You also stated that his rights are being violated due to the lack of counsel. We’re trying to get it resolved today. He still doesn’t have no counsel.”
Weaver is not an attorney. She’s a certified nursing assistant with no legal training, who filed a hand-written motion to dismiss the case. She also is Turner’s fiancé.
“He’s kinda like stuck,” Weaver told the judge. “He doesn’t have no representation at all. No help at all. None, besides the little bit I give him.”
Turner’s case is but one example of a broken legal defense system that oftentimes leaves poor defendants without an attorney for months, if not years.
And the problem is further exacerbated when cases involve multiple people charged in the same crime.
To quantify the problem, InvestigateTV reviewed records from the Georgia Public Defense Council (GPDC) related to criminal cases with multiple defendants. The Defenders Council represents 85% of all people charged with crimes in the Georgia.
This is a special group of accused because they need what’s known as conflict and C3 attorneys – private lawyers certified to represent indigent defendants on the state’s behalf when it involves multiple defendants accused in the same crime.
As of August, there were at least 650 people waiting for conflict and C3 attorneys. Some had been incarcerated for more than a year.
In a May 20, 2022, email to the state public defender’s office, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Melynee Leftridge expressed concern with the agency’s inability to appoint attorneys to defendants.
“As you are aware, the lack of C3 attorneys has worked to cause grave injustice to those persons subject to charge brought by the State, particularly those who are in custody,” Leftridge said.
The agency’s deputy director, Katherine Mason, responded to the judge: “The issue is not isolated to Fulton County,” she wrote in an email. “We are struggling to find private attorneys who want to represent indigent people charged with crimes all over Georgia.”
Omotayo Alli, GPDC’s director, was copied on the email.
The next month, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis filed an emergency motion to appoint counsel to appoint 15 people charged in a large racketeering case. It’s not the district attorney’s obligation to find public defenders for those charged, but the GPDC’s.
“The State makes this request to avoid creating a manifest injustice for any of the currently-unrepresented defendants,” Willis wrote in June. Nearly six months later, not all of the defendants had attorneys.
In October, Dunaway held a status hearing requesting an update on two defendants still awaiting C-3 representation.
One included Turner, the man whose fiancé spoke for him in court. The other was Tobias Carter, originally indicted for murder in 2017.
“Has counsel been appointed yet?” the judge asked in court papers.
Other Fulton County judges have been more vocal in their frustration, including Judge Robert McBurney.
“They are waiting for that lawyer to help them through this complicated, serious process,” McBurney told InvestigateTV. “And it is an unacceptable crisis that there are people sitting incarcerated not able to move their case forward because the system can’t find them a lawyer.”
During an August 2022 hearing in McBurney’s courtroom two defendants appeared before him without C3 attorneys.
“We are working on an unacceptable crisis and you’re not the only one,” said McBurney to one of the defendants who had been charged with multiple crimes including home invasion and assault with a deadly weapon and behind bars for nearly two years. “We need to fix this. It is top of mind for the courts, but I don’t get to hire the lawyers. There are other agencies that are supposed to be getting this done. Meanwhile, you’re stuck in jail.”
Human rights group threatens lawsuit over shortage
A few weeks after McBurney’s hearing, The Southern Center for Human Rights threatened litigation if the state doesn’t fix the problem.
In a letter to the agency, it said, the state public defender’s office “is in breach of its clear and mandatory statutory responsibility with respect to hundreds of indigent persons accused of crimes.”
If the civil rights organization files a lawsuit against the agency, it will be the third time in about 20 years the state has been sued for violating defendants’ constitutional rights to an attorney.
Critics argue that the state’s public defender office has been plagued by turnovers, underfunding and a toxic work environment.
Director of public defender agency pushes back on criticism
In an exclusive interview with InvestigateTV in October, Alli defended the agency and her actions (full interview available here or below). She said state public defenders and their clients have never been more supported.
“We are assigning our clients attorneys as soon as we know about them,” Alli said. “To call it a constitutional crisis, I disagree with that.”
According to an invoice obtained through a public records request, the state agency paid a videographer $500 to record the interview between Alli and InvestigateTV.
When asked why GPDC used tax dollars to pay for the recording, Alli said the video will be used for training purposes.
However, according to an email from Natalie Glasser, the agency’s chief legal officer, GPDC planned to use the video in another way. “We want to have our own video of the interview so that we can put it on our website in full (since they will have edit it for their use),” wrote Glasser to the videography company.
Alli joined the agency during the height of the pandemic and said that she inherited staffing shortages. Earlier this year, Alli asked state lawmakers to give staff attorneys a six percent raise. The legislature agreed.
“At this moment, we’re bleeding from my staffing right now. We are losing our attorneys by the droves and what does this mean, if we keep losing our attorneys, the taxpayers are not going to get the value of what we’re supposed to do,” Alli told lawmakers during a February 2022 Georgia House Appropriations Public Safety Committee.
But nine months after sounding that alarm, Alli not only said the agency has enough attorneys, but her agency has created a system that automatically assigns attorneys to defendants within 72 hours.
When asked why she believes the current system is working smoothly when so many others – including judges, defendants and their families say otherwise – Alli said they don’t understand what’s happening behind the scenes.
“When you don’t have the whole story, you only base your information on what you have,” she said.
Alli blamed judges for not notifying her office when defendants show up to court without representation.
She provided a letter she sent to the Council of Superior Court Judges of Georgia on September 8, 2022. “We ask that courts continue to enforce the State Bar Rules of Professional Conduct regarding withdraw and prohibit attorneys from withdrawing without duly providing substitution of counsel,” Alli said. State law does not require Georgia judges to do what Alli asked.
Alli doubled the fees paid to contract attorneys this year. For example, a year ago, the agency paid $3,650 to handle a murder case. Now, the agency pays $7,500.
But some defense attorneys who spoke with InvestigateTV said it’s still not enough.
To fill the need, Fulton County recently started contracting its own private attorneys for public defense. Its rates are hourly and higher than what state public defender’s office is offering.
But, the move is a temporary fix because the county is using federal funds to do it.
“I’ve only been in this position for two years,” Alli said. “But, in my 32 years in the public defender system, in one capacity or the other, these last two years have been the most phenomenal.”
Not everyone agrees.
‘I absolutely would not have left, but for the turmoil in the office’
InvestigateTV spoke with six former public defenders who left the agency after Alli took over in March 2020. All blamed her for not doing enough to support agency staff.
Camile Reddick worked at the agency more than a decade before departing this past March. The agency said she resigned, but Reddick said she was fired. “I did not leave,” she said. “I was terminated after I began to yell at the top of my lungs that the way we were handling business and the way we were treating persons who could not afford an attorney was in violation of the constitution.”
Former public defenders Marybeth Snyder, David Cooper and Linda Day said the agency didn’t provide basic office supplies to do their jobs.
“They took away everything,” said Snyder, who left the agency in June 2021. “They told us we would have offices and they were like, ‘Oh no, just kidding, no offices.’”
“I absolutely would not have left, but for the turmoil in the office,” said Cooper, who resigned in September 2021.
While Day also quit the agency in September 2021, she still represents indigent defendants for the state public defender office as a contract attorney in Clayton County, just outside Atlanta.
At the time of the interview, Day represented 500 clients, which she said is not manageable or fair to her clients.
“You’re pissing on fires as they come up,” she said, “because there’s no other way to do it. So, cases don’t really get looked at until they show up on a trial calendar.”
While Alli said she doesn’t believe Day, the state’s case management system shows Day’s caseload actually increased to 687 just days after InvestigateTV’s interview with the director.
Brandon Bullard is the former director of the agency’s appellate division, responsible for appeals. It’s an important layer of public defense that ensures verdicts are fair. He resigned in August 2020.
Two years ago, Alli proposed cutting $1 million from his office to address budget deficits during the pandemic without telling him, Bullard said.
“One, it was the first I ever heard of it,” he said. “I was the director of that office. Two, coincidentally, $1 million was roughly the collective salaries for myself and the entire division. “I left because I had no faith that the present leadership was going to be invested in quality representation or would have any respect for the people who were doing the work.”
Alli confirmed she never spoke to Bullard before proposing the cuts, but added, she wasn’t required to. “There is a chain of command. Mr. Bullard did not report to me. He reported to someone else,” Alli said.
Devin Franklin is a former attorney in the Fulton Circuit Office. He worked as a public defender for 12 years before resigning in 2020.
Franklin said he left for several reasons, including an increasingly toxic culture.
He specifically remembers the director prohibiting him and his colleagues from participating in a Black Lives Matter rally in wake of George Floyd’s death. According to Franklin, when Alli discovered his efforts to organize it, she sent a letter to him that said agency policy prohibits staff from participating in political activity.
“The tone of the letter was essentially that, ‘You can do what you want on your free time, but if you are to go and participate in these sort of rallies, you cannot identify yourself as a public defender.’ And for a number of us, it was offensive,” Franklin said.
The day Weaver asked the judge to dismiss her fiancé's sex trafficking case, two other inmates appeared in court without legal representation.
In each case, the judge acknowledged the defendants’ constitutional rights were violated.
Rather than recommending she contact the public defender agency, Judge Dunaway’s suggestion to Weaver was to contact the civil rights organization currently threatening to sue the state’s public defender’s office.
“Have you called the Southern Center?” Dunaway asked in open court.
Full interview with Director Omotayo Alli:
Below is the complete packet of information provided to Investigate TV by the Georgia Public Defense Council ahead of the interview with Director Omotayo Alli.
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