Legislative support is eroding for Georgia’s 2-year-old public defender system, already facing a funding crisis that imperils thousands of criminal prosecutions, reports the Atlanta Journal-Constituion. The flash point is the case of Brian Nichols, accused of killing a judge and three other people in a 2005 rampage that started at Atlanta’s Fulton County Courthouse. After hearing of the cost of Nichols’ defense, which has reached $1.4 million, powerful lawmakers are calling for overhauling funding and oversight of the public defender system.
The uproar is a stark change from four years ago, when legislators heralded the creation of a new state-funded system of lawyers for indigent criminal defendants. It replaced a hodgepodge of uneven local programs that often fell short of constitutional standards. A budget shortage forced a state council to slash spending for some capital cases across the state last year. Hilton Fuller, the judge in the Nichols case, has delayed the trial until the state provides more money for public defenders. The council needs an infusion of midyear funding. Otherwise, the system will run out of money in late April or early May and be unable to make payroll for its 760 employees through June 30.