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New leader, same problems for state public defenders

ATHENS, Ga. -- The state's embattled public defender system has a surprising new leader -- and a litany of complaints that is all too familiar.

The complaints go something like this: The cash-strapped system doesn't have enough staff to handle Georgia's indigent defendants. There's a seemingly endless tide of defendants that need legal help. And state lawmakers don't have enough faith in the system to give it the necessary funding.

The new leader tapped by Gov. Nathan Deal to handle these challenges was perhaps a startling choice: Travis Sakrison, an ex-prosecutor with the DeKalb County district attorney's office. But he and his backers hope he'll bring new ideas to a system that's been bruised by legal challenges and battered by waning legislative support.

"I'm excited about this opportunity," Sakrison said at the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council's first meeting in Athens. "This is a great organization that does important work."

He has his work cut out for him. Sakrison is the council's third leader in less than a year, creating instability that has unnerved some. He must learn to quickly navigate a sometimes cantankerous board, whose members have threatened to sue the state over funding woes and urged the governor to call a special legislative session for more money.

Perhaps his greatest challenge is to convince conservative lawmakers that the council is worthy of more funding. Republican leaders have slashed funding ever since the council picked up the $3 million taxpayer-funded defense tab for the 2008 trial of Atlanta courthouse gunman Brian Nichols. Prosecutors said his defense should have cost about $500,000.

Like other state agencies, the council faces more budget cuts this year. Deal's proposal recommends cutting the agency's budget by $1.2 million for the rest of this fiscal year and another $884,000 in the next fiscal year.

The specter of more legal challenges looms, as civil rights groups have filed one lawsuit after another that claimed the council failed its mission to provide adequate legal defense for Georgia's poor defendants.

The issues they have targeted have struck at the heart of the council's woes: They claim, among other issues, that the state failed to hire attorneys for about 100 inmates who wanted to file an appeal, and they say that some defendants have waited in jail for years because the council couldn't afford to pay for public defenders.

The internal challenges seem daunting, too.

Jerry Word, who heads the Georgia Capital Defender office, said his division is charged with defending 11 death penalty trials in the first six months of the year. Some are expected to be costly because they involve travel and the hiring of expert witnesses, he said.

"This is going to put a huge strain on what's already a strained budget," he said.

Another simmering issue is the debate over so-called conflict cases -- those with multiple defendants. Jim Stokes, the conflict division's leader, said his unit is left with only a few dwindling options amid a growing number of those types of cases.

"We either have to have an infusion of money, we have to have fewer conflict cases, or we have to have more help from the legal community to take on pro bono cases," he said. "We are constantly looking for ways to cut costs -- we've been in this situation for a while."

Council member Wyc Orr, one of the council's most outspoken members, dinged Deal for appointing a new leader without first consulting the board. And he worries the system will have to revert to a "bake sale theory of indigent defense" without more funding.

"This is such a huge step backwards," he said. "The state of Georgia has to go hat in hand to firms begging them to take cases that the state isn't taking. It's a sorry state of affairs."

Sakrison, who spoke little during the meeting as he adjusts to his new role, said he's confident he'll be able to handle the council's challenges. And in some ways, his background as a prosecutor gives him some advantages that his predecessors didn't have.

State Rep. Rob Teilhet, a former Democratic legislator who was appointed to the post in September, practiced mostly worker's compensation law. And his predecessor, Mack Crawford, is also an ex-legislator who was a general practitioner before leaving office when he was tapped as a superior court judge.

"You protect folks' constitutional rights and you also help people," Sakrison told the council. "My background is mainly working in court with the people who do that every day, and I'll try to do what I can to help you with that."