ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
The public defender system in Georgia is running short of money because of one big case. Brian Nichols is charged with killing four people when he broke out of a courthouse two years ago. His defense has cost the public defender's office $1.4 million so far and hasn't even gone to trial yet.
From Atlanta, NPR's Kathy Lohr reports that the case is prompting some people in Georgia to rethink their whole system for public defenders.
KATHY LOHR: The judge hearing the Nichols case, Hilton Fuller, announced this week he is postponing the trial for six months. He said he made the decision because of funding problems and because of the complex nature of the case. This comes after the judge already delayed the case for a month because the public defender's office was running out of money.
Mr. HILTON FULLER (Judge, Gwinnett County Superior Court): Every time we turn around there seems to be additional expenses far beyond what anyone could have expected. And all of it seems to be coming from Mr. Nichols' case.
LOHR: Michael Mears is the director of the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council. Some of the reasons for the huge expense: There are six prosecutors and 54 counts against Nichols. The judge appointed four attorneys to represent him; three are paid much more than public defenders ordinarily make. The number of expert witnesses and the cost of transcribing records is high. Mears says a normal death penalty case costs about $250,000. This case is likely to cost more than $2 million.
Mr. MICHAEL MEARS (Director, Georgia Public Defender Standards Council): So all of those factors together have created a minor storm for us. You can see how the budget would be seriously negatively impacted when you project one set of costs and then you triple and quadruple what you're paying in other death penalty cases.
LOHR: There's another problem too. The Public Defenders Office's budget ended up $9.5 million short this year. Unless the legislature approves additional funding, the office, which represents tens of thousands of indigent clients, including 72 death penalty cases, will run out of money in about a month.
Glenn Richardson is Georgia's speaker of the House.
State Representative GLENN RICHARDSON (Republican, Georgia): I think this particular case underscores the potential for abuse.
LOHR: Richardson says many here are upset that the judge appointed four attorneys for Nichols when most defendants get two. Others are unhappy that the judge sealed the expenses so no one knows where the money is going. But mostly he thinks some are using the case to attack the death penalty in Georgia.
State Rep. RICHARDSON: What I think is going on is clearly an attempt by those people who are opposed to the death penalty to run the price up just as high as they can run it to try to make us not continue to seek the death penalty.
LOHR: In more than a dozen states this year, measures have been introduced to abolish the death penalty in part because of the cost of a few high-profile cases.
Representative Paul Weissmann has introduced such a bill in Colorado, because he says the death penalty has been carried out only once in three decades there but has cost more than $40 million, while thousands of other cases remain unsolved.
State Representative PAUL WEISSMANN (Democrat, Colorado): For public safety reasons and fiscal reasons, it makes more sense to focus on trying to solve some of those unsolved cases and getting those murderers off the street versus, you know, having a death penalty that we rarely, if ever, use.
LOHR: Weissmann would use this savings to create a cold case squad. In the meantime, the Georgia legislature is looking at providing additional money for public defenders while reexamining the entire system that's only a couple of years old.
Stephen Bright with the Southern Center for Human Rights says it's a bad idea to make policy changes based on one extraordinary case.
Mr. STEPHEN BRIGHT (President and Senior Counsel, Center for Human Rights): It's a big case. It's going to require a huge effort on the part of the sheriff's office for security, on the part of the prosecutor's office with regard to prosecuting the case, with regard to pulling all the evidence together and the witnesses together. It's just not going to be business as usual.
LOHR: But that's difficult for many to understand. One senator has accused the public defender's office of spending money like drunken sailors on shore leave. In response, the head of the office says this is an emotional case, but his job is to see that a very unpopular client gets a good defense and a fair trial.
Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.
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