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Ga. capital cases end up in US Supreme Court

Inmate who says he lacked lawyer may be the latest

By Greg Bluestein
Associated Press / September 18, 2010

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ATLANTA — The US Supreme Court has stepped into four Georgia death penalty cases in the last year or so, and it could intervene again — this time over a defendant who said he languished in jail because the state couldn’t pay his lawyers.

It’s the latest test for Georgia’s justice system, which has come under scrutiny in recent years. The state’s new public defender program has had funding trouble ever since it spent $3 million in 2008 defending Brian Nichols, the man convicted of killing a judge, court reporter, sheriff’s deputy, and federal agent during a 2005 rampage at an Atlanta courthouse. And the Georgia Supreme Court has been criticized for not reviewing death penalty appeals closely enough.

In this case, Jamie Ryan Weis, who is accused of killing a 73-year-old woman, said there was a “complete breakdown’’ in the system when he sat in jail without a lawyer for more than two years. The US Supreme Court could decide after a closed-door conference Sept. 27 whether it wants to intervene.

“It’s especially surprising because this Supreme Court is not an anti-death penalty court,’’ said Donald E. Wilkes Jr., a University of Georgia Law School professor who specializes in death penalty cases. “Maybe they think that Georgia is giving the death penalty a bad name, if that’s possible.’’

But Weis’s case may not be as simple as he asserts. Prosecutors said Weis was never without legal representation, though they concede his lawyers were limited by a funding shortfall.

“The Georgia Supreme Court properly determined there was not a systemic breakdown in the indigent defense system in Georgia,’’ Beth Burton, a senior Georgia assistant attorney general, said in arguments.

Weis was charged in the February 2006 killing of Catherine King, slain by blunt force injuries and two gunshot wounds to the head during a robbery. He has pleaded not guilty.

Two private lawyers were appointed to represent him, but when the state couldn’t afford to pay them, a judge ordered two public defenders even though they said they had overwhelming caseloads.

After Weis refused to work with them, appellate lawyers from the Southern Center for Human Rights took up his case for free, and said his right to a speedy trial was violated.

The Georgia Supreme Court rejected the speedy trial appeal in March in a 4-to-3 ruling, finding that Weis played a key role in the delays. His new lawyers then asked the US Supreme Court to step in.

Weis has reportedly attempted suicide three times.

“He can’t sleep. He’s a nervous wreck. And amid all this uncertainty, not having a lawyer just made everything worse,’’ said Steven Bright, his lawyer and president of the Atlanta-based center.

“Even for a normal person facing the death penalty, being able to talk to a lawyer about our legal plight would be critical. But for somebody who is mentally ill, to go without a lawyer is agonizing.’’

Weis’s lawyers blame the funding shortfall on the Georgia Legislature’s decision to divert $30 million raised from court fines and fees from the public defender system to the state’s general fund.

Weis’s dilemma is the most immediate in a string of capital cases scrutinized by the nation’s highest court, which sent a warning of sorts in October 2008 when Justice John Paul Stevens wrote an opinion that said the Georgia Supreme Court carried out an “utterly perfunctory’’ review of a death penalty case.

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