The Brian Nichols courthouse shooting case illustrates a troubling paradox in death-penalty jurisprudence, says the New Yorker: “the more heinous a crime–and the more incontrovertible the evidence of a defendant's guilt–the greater the cost of the defense may be.” Death-penalty cases require juries to make complex moral judgments–why a defendant committed a crime, whether he is likely to do so again, what punishment fits the crime. Defendants are entitled to costly expert assistance, including the services of psychiatrists. Yet spending large sums of public money on the defense of capital cases is politically incendiary. In Georgia the consequences may be cataclysmic. Says Stephen Bright of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights” “We are just now starting to see the ripple effect of Nichols. The question now is whether the whole thing is going to come crashing down.”
In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled that indigent criminal defendants must be provided with lawyers free of charge. But the court allowed local officials to decide whether to establish full-time staffs of defense lawyers for the poor or to assign private lawyers on a case-by-case basis. Until 2005, Georgia, like many states, lacked a coherent plan for providing attorneys. “Georgia has a hundred and fifty-nine counties, and each one had a different system of hiring lawyers for the poor,” Bright said.