Middle Georgia public defenders say they do a good job avoiding conflict of interest

bpurser@macon.comApril 22, 2013 

WARNER ROBINS -- A recent state Supreme Court ruling isn’t expected to change much how felony conflict cases with multiple defendants are handled in Middle Georgia, public defenders say.

The High Court last week upheld a conflict of interest standard on representing multiple defendants charged in the same criminal case. Regional public defenders say they’re already doing a good job of farming out co-defendants in those conflict cases.

“We were leaning forward in the saddle and always avoiding those kind of conflicts,” said Lee Robinson, the chief public defender for the Macon Judicial Circuit. The circuit includes Bibb, Peach and Crawford counties.

The state Supreme Court found that if a single public defender in a judicial circuit had an “impermissible conflict,” none of the other attorneys in the same circuit could represent any of the remaining clients either. The ruling did not automatically throw out representation of multiple defendants.

The issue was codefendants with antagonistic defenses. An example would be when multiple defendants in an armed robbery are pointing the finger at each other.

In the Macon Judicial District, serious felonies such as homicides and armed robbery with multiple defendants are automatically distributed among private attorneys on contract with the state to handle such cases, Robinson noted.

The judicial district represents one defendant and the private attorneys are assigned the other defendants.

Robinson also hedged his bets, however. He expects other felony cases such as drug and property crimes to be more heavily scrutinized in light of the ruling. How the more rigorous review may impact those cases remains to be seen, he said.

G.B. “Butch” Moore, chief public defender for the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit, said he expects the ruling to have minimal impact on the criteria his circuit uses to determine whether there is a conflict in representing multiple defendants. The circuit comprises Baldwin, Greene, Hancock, Jasper, Jones, Morgan, Putnam and Wilkerson counties.

“We’re certainly going to err on the side of caution to ensure we don’t infringe on any defendant’s rights,” Moore added.

Nick White, the chief public defender in Houston County, which opted out of the state public defender system, said the county was not affected by the ruling. His office, on its own, previously adopted the same standard.

For many years, the public defender’s office has used attorneys contracted through the county to handle multiple defendant conflict cases, he said.

“It’s a good ruling,” White said. “It ensures that each defendant will have an attorney that has their best interest at heart ... You don’t want an attorney having conflicting loyalties.”

Franklin J. Hogue, a Macon criminal defense attorney, also applauded the ruling.

The ruling made public defenders working in the same circuit akin to private attorneys working in the same law firm, Hogue said. He noted that poor people have the same right to conflict-free representation as people who are able to afford to hire an attorney.

But Travis Sakrison, executive director of the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, said the argument was theoretical about how the council should be run and that no one’s rights were being trampled on.

He argued that the issue had moved beyond impermissible conflict to an automatic rule of disqualification of a circuit public defender’s office. There are times, he said, when multiple defendants are best represented by the same attorney or circuit attorneys when a united front is presented.

However, the state Supreme Court noted in its ruling that the conflict of interest standard does not become “relevant or applicable until after an impermissible conflict of interest has been found to exist.”

But Sakrison maintained that the state Supreme Court also noted in its ruling that representing multiple criminal defendants “is ethically permissible only in the unusual case” based on the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct and that such representation is generally frowned upon.

As a result, Sakrison said he expects more cases to become conflict cases, which in turn will increase defense costs.

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.

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