The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees that ‘in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall . . . have the assistance of counsel for his defence.’
In 1963, in Gideon v. Wainwright, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled that the Sixth Amendment—which applies to the individual states as well as the federal government—requires that lawyers be appointed to represent indigent defendants being tried for serious offenses in state criminal trials.
And in 1972, in Argesinger v. Hamlin, the Supreme Court decided that even in misdemeanor charges, if conviction could lead to imprisonment, defendants without funds must have lawyers appointed to defend them.
As Justice Thurgood Marshall used to say, these constitutional guarantees are mocked by the actual experiences of many poor people caught in the criminal justice [sic] system. Not only don’t they get adequate counsel, but many—hidden away in city and state jails—get no lawyers at all while locked up for months waiting for their trials.
Several years ago, working on a death penalty story, I was talking to a warden in Mississippi whose prison contained a number of convicts for whom execution dates had been set. I asked for the names of their lawyers. The warden told me that three of them did not have lawyers.
“How are they going to appeal?” I asked.
“We have a law library,” the warden said. “They can use the law books and send in an appeal.”
“How much education do they have?”
“Well,” the warden said, “none of them got as far as high school.”
In Coweta County, Georgia, a lawsuit was filed this August that should get national attention, but has not so far. It charges:
“The right to counsel—the most basic protection against unlawful imprisonment, and the constitutional right upon which the enforcement of every other right depends—is being systematically denied to poor people accused of crimes in the Superior Court of Coweta County. Over half of the poor people found guilty of some offense in the Superior Court of Coweta County in the last two and a half years were not represented by counsel.”
As Steve Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, emphasizes: “Poor people in this court are being processed through this system, not represented.”
The lawsuit has been brought by Bright, along with other lawyers, as a statement from them says, to protest the fact that their clients are “languishing in jail for months without an attorney.”
Supporting this suit are the South East Regional NAACP and longtime civil rights leader Reverend Joseph Lowery, a member of both the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples Agenda and the Black Leadership Forum. Says Lowery:
“The fact that African Americans are two-thirds of the prison population is a clear indication that the indigent defense system in Georgia represents a new form of slavery.”
This class action suit is being filed, says the Southern Center for Human Rights, on behalf of current and future indigent defendants, and “habeas corpus petitions to challenge the convictions of certain prisoners are also being filed that seek to overturn convictions based on Coweta County’s violations of these prisoners’ constitutional right to be represented by counsel in their criminal cases.”
Among the named defendants in this historic suit are William F. Lee, chief judge of the Superior Court of Coweta County; Georgia governor Roy E. Barnes; and the Coweta County Board of Commissioners.
Court-appointed attorneys are often more helpful to the prosecution than to the defense. This is true not only for indigent defendants, but particularly for the mentally retarded. Consider this July 15 editorial in The Atlanta Constitution:
“Sentenced to 20 years for killing her newborn, 20-year-old Denise Lockett is so mentally retarded that she doesn’t know whether she had a trial.
“Now an inmate at the Pulaski State Prison, she doesn’t recognize the name of the chief judge of the South Georgia Circuit, Wallace Cato, who gave her the maximum penalty for voluntary manslaughter. She can’t read words like ‘innocent’ and ‘attorney’ in the guilty plea she signed on the advice of her court-appointed lawyer, Billy Grantham. . . .
“There was little solid evidence that Lockett killed her newborn. She was 16 when she delivered the baby in the toilet of the small house she shared in a Baconton housing project with her mother and seven siblings. The baby was later found dead in a ditch just outside the door.”
The medical examiner reported that it wasn’t possible to determine “within a reasonable degree of medical certainty [whether] the infant died of any intentional act.” That page of the medical examiner’s report, notes The Atlanta Constitution, was “missing when charges were filed.”
District Attorney J. Brown Moseley charged Denise Lockett with felony murder. Here is the crucial section of The Atlanta Constitution editorial:
“Grantham, Lockett’s court-appointed attorney, didn’t bother to mention the autopsy report or its missing page at the plea hearing. He didn’t mention Lockett’s retardation. He just recommended that she plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter and asked the judge to allow her to spend part of her sentence on probation. Instead, in September 1997, the judge locked her away for 20 years.”
The editorial pointed out—with regard to the constitutional guarantee of “equal protection of the laws”—that Amy Grossberg, “whose dead baby was found in a trash bin outside the motel where she and her boyfriend delivered it,” had a first-rate private attorney when tried in Delaware, “was released after two years detention,” and is “serving the rest of her 10-year sentence for manslaughter on probation.”
What the hell can the Constitution possibly mean to Denise Lockett, who has an IQ of 62 and no idea why she is in a prison cell? Her court-appointed attorney, together with another lawyer, Ernie Sheffield, “handled more than 650 felony cases . . . in the South Georgia Circuit last year,” reports The Atlanta Constitution.
The editorial ends: “The kind of justice poor defendants get is nothing short of a crime.” That’s the case in this city too, as Rudy Giuliani keeps weakening the Legal Aid Society.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 9, 2001