Legislature working on indigent defense crisis

May 23, 2007
By Theresa Schmidt

Over the last week,  three local first degree murder cases were amended to a lesser charge of second degree murder.  That means no possibility of the death penalty.  While in one case, the reason for the change was an issue with evidence, others stem from the on-going crisis in the state's public defender program.

People accused of a crime are entitled to an attorney.  And if they cannot afford to hire their own, an attorney is appointed at public expense.  But many consider the system that provides defense for indigent defendants to be broken. State lawmakers are trying to fix the problem, but a solution cannot come soon enough for some victims' families.

Says Julia Fontenot, whose son Tony was killed September 21, 2004.  "When you cannot get to court and get justice you are being victimized all over again."  There's a saying justice delayed is justice denied. Billie Marsh's son Bradley was killed in 2002.  "It's been almost five years since the grand jury indicted [the] young man that did it."

In both cases, the district attorney's office addressed the problem by amending charges from first to second degree murder, which prosecutor Cynthia Killingsworth says will help move the cases forward: "I don't want to have some appellate court come later on somewhere, who knows when and say that we took too long to try the cases. That's what we're trying to avoid."

Ron Ware is the executive director of the local public defenders office. The room in which we are doing the interview has four walls of boxes.  The boxes are full files and show but a fraction of the cases that move through his office. "We close thousands of cases a year. Of course we receive hundreds or thousands of new appointments each year."

Ware is optimistic that the current reform bill in the legislature will receive approval and, by providing statewide oversight, help assure minimum standards are met.  Says Ware, "The system's in trouble, a system indefensible, a system broken and in urgent need of repair, and it's been that way for a long time. And this is the first chance that we've had to get something meaningful done and we're very excited about it."

Ultimately though,  it will take money to solve the problem. And finding that money will be an ongoing issue. The indigent defense reform bill sponsored By Representative Danny Martiny awaits debate in a state senate committee.