On trial in Atlanta: Cost of justice

Georgia's death penalty cases are on hold as state, judge wrangle over $1.8 million price tag for defending Brian Nichols.

Can you put a price tag on justice? That's what the state of Georgia is trying to decide.

Two years ago, in an effort to eradicate its "Cool Hand Luke" reputation, the state reformed its public-defender system, replacing it with a centralized model that was designed to give indigent defendants in murder cases a quality defense. Now, that model is being strained to the breaking point by one high-profile case.

The defense team for Brian Nichols has spent $1.8 million so far – nearly half the state's entire annual public-defender budget – and say they need more money. (By comparison, the state prosecutor has spent $5 million – in a case where the accused confessed and several of the murders were caught on tape.)

As a result of what it claims are outrageous costs, the state is refusing to pay the defense team and the judge in the case is threatening a state office with contempt of court. Meanwhile, not only the Nichols case, but all of the state's nearly 80 other death penalty cases have ground to a halt.

"It's a challenge because many people in leadership positions have been very concerned over the tremendously escalating costs of this one case," says state Rep. David Ralston (R) of Blue Ridge, co-chair of Georgia's House Judiciary Committee. "So we're asking ourselves: Where is the system going to be when the Brian Nichols case is finally over some day?"

Mr. Nichols made national headlines in 2005 when he escaped from an Atlanta courtroom where he was on trial for rape – in the process allegedly shooting a judge, a deputy, and a court reporter. He later allegedly killed an off-duty federal agent and took a woman hostage in nearby Duluth. The woman convinced Mr. Nichols to give himself up after sharing drugs with him and reading to him from the bestselling self-help book "A Purpose-Driven Life."

The Nichols case has come to represent a major test for legal reforms in a state eager to shed a reputation for overzealous prosecutions, especially of minorities and the poor. And it's being watched closely by both opponents of the death penalty and other states that are grappling with the high cost of trying a death-penalty case fairly. New Jersey, New York, Colorado, and Arizona have all had hearings or proposed legislation that would offset the steep financial burden to the taxpayer. In California, the waiting list for experienced public defenders in capital murder cases is four years long.

Opposing the death penalty on financial or technical grounds – rather than moral – has become an increasingly common tactic, those who follow the death-penalty debate say.

"It's the death penalty that triggers all this," says Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, which opposes the death sentence. "In Georgia, the crisis is that they can't do their other cases if funds have run out, so it ripples all through the state, where the system bogs down because these death-penalty prosecutions are so expensive."

Critics argue that, under the guise of defending Nichols, the defense team is putting the death penalty itself on trial. "This is really more about trying to chip away at Georgia's death-penalty law by the power of the purse," says Representative Ralston. "That's something that we [in the legislature] cannot allow to happen."

Presiding Judge Hilton Fuller has ordered the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, which is responsible for indigent cases, to pay the defense team's bill or face jail time for contempt. The contempt hearing was postponed last week, when Judge Fuller recused himself. Then on Thursday, the House began an impeachment investigation into Fuller's decisions, on charges that the county judge has lost control of spending in the case. The Standards Council has argued that the average death-penalty case costs the state $400,000.

"It's emotionalism," says veteran Atlanta defense attorney Millard Farmer, who supports what he says is Fuller's pursuit of fairness. "It's easy to sell that this man doesn't even need a lawyer – let's just get a rope and a tree. You could sell that point of view, and it was sold for years. But this judge [is] not going to let this man be hung on his rope."

Reforms in Georgia began in 2000 after the legislature heard testimony about country lawyers in over their heads in death-penalty cases. "There was a great movement within the defense bar to ... bring us out of the 'Cool Hand Luke' days," says Tom West, a death-penalty defense attorney in Atlanta.

But funding immediately became an issue. Neighboring North Carolina spends about $14 million a year footing the bill for those who can't afford to hire a lawyer on their own. Georgia's budget is just over $4 million.

"The Nichols case has ... exposed problems with the funding and the lack of will by anyone to fix it," says attorney Chris Adams, who resigned as chair of the state's indigent defense council over the issue.

And some experts have argued that, should Nichols ultimately be convicted of murder and his legal bill not paid, he would have grounds for appeal.

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