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The long reach of Brian Nichols 

And Georgia's deepening death-penalty crisis

There were no signs of forced entry into Doris Joyner's Snellville home. So police theorized the elderly widow knew the person who stabbed her to death.

They found their connection six weeks later, on Sept. 22, 2004, when they arrested Kayla Sanders, 22, and one of her brothers-in-law, Donald Sanders, 32, in connection with the murder. Kayla Sanders' other brother-in-law, who also is the father of her first child, had once worked for Joyner's late husband and lived in his house.

She and Donald Sanders allegedly robbed the widow because Kayla Sanders wanted $900 to bail her husband out of a Jackson County jail, where he was being held for committing domestic violence against her. She later told police that she'd also noticed Joyner's big-screen television and "really wanted to have" it.

According to court testimony, Joyner recognized the burglars when she confronted them. So they allegedly bludgeoned the 68-year-old woman with an iron, then stabbed her in the neck. Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter decided to seek the death penalty against both Donald and Kayla Sanders.

Because the suspects didn't have the resources to hire attorneys, their cases were turned over to the Georgia Capital Defenders, a unit set up to handle all death-penalty cases as part of a new state-funded public defender system. Kayla Sanders was represented by a senior staff attorney from the agency. Each defendant accused the other of killing Joyner, so a private lawyer named Walt Britt was chosen to represent Donald Sanders.

Then, on Feb. 9, 2007, as the trial approached, Britt filed a motion that claimed he couldn't give his client proper representation. Two years after it was created, Georgia's new public defender system was running out of money, he argued, partly because of a separate and sensational case in Atlanta: the defense of accused quadruple murderer Brian Nichols.

The capital defenders unit had stopped paying Britt and couldn't give him money for the expert witnesses he needed, he complained. He asked for financial records from the capital defenders unit detailing spending on Nichols and even demanded that the system be declared unconstitutional because it wasn't adequately funded.

The motion was denied, and Britt appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court. Then the trial judge, who'd been clashing with Britt over various issues, suddenly pulled him off the case for an alleged conflict of interest.

Like nearly every other death-penalty case in the state, the Joyner murder trial is now at a standstill. And the highly lauded public defender system that was only put in place three years ago is in crisis.

"Yes, I'm frustrated," Porter says. "It frustrates me because these cases are too important to become a political football. The families don't understand why this system isn't working and it's hard to explain to them. There's plenty of blame to go around, both in the management of the system and the Legislature."

Three years ago, that kind of frustration was supposed to be a thing of the past. The General Assembly had just created the Georgia Public Defenders Standards Council, a new agency that would provide defense attorneys in 190,000 indigent court cases each year. The council replaced a county-by-county hodgepodge that had grown out of a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling ordering states to provide legal representation to people who were charged with crimes but couldn't afford a lawyer.

In the decades since that ruling, a few counties had created full-time public defender offices. Most either contracted out indigent cases or required local attorneys – some of whom had no background in criminal law – to accept a certain number each year. In many counties, there was a "meet and plea" assembly line: An indigent defendant would meet his lawyer, talk for five minutes and then plead guilty. Indigent defendants could languish in jail for months in Fulton County before they saw a public defender. In Coweta, they were ordered to meet with a prosecutor in the courtroom at arraignment, who would encourage them to accept a plea bargain without ever speaking to a defense lawyer.

It was a system ripe for legal challenge, and in the late '90s, the Southern Center for Human Rights – a nonprofit law firm that advocates for the rights of prisoners and death-penalty defendants – began to do just that, one county at a time. "Those cases were slam dunks," Southern Center President Stephen Bright says.

The state Supreme Court responded to the center's lawsuits in 2001 by appointing a study commission to take an in-depth look at indigent defense in Georgia. It concluded that only an overhaul would protect the state's courts from a never-ending avalanche of lawsuits. Meanwhile, a three-part series in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, called "Defending the Poor," vividly outlined how thousands of indigent criminal defendants were effectively being denied the right to counsel.

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