Thousands of miles away from here, there’s another Georgia, a former Soviet state.
There, it’s only recently that people accused of murder have had a chance for a jury of their peers to hear their case and decide their fate beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s been the standard in the United States for more than 200 years.
Jury trials in the country, nestled between Russia and Turkey on the Black Sea, started just five years ago. Trials are only available in murder and public corruption cases.
Over the next couple of years, a seven-member group of criminal defense attorneys — three from Middle Georgia — will make multiple trips to the country to share their trial skills.
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The group, which includes Macon attorneys Franklin J. and Laura D. Hogue and Houston County Chief Assistant Public Defender Angie Coggins, recently returned from an introductory trip to the country.
Franklin Hogue said the group was recruited after the director of a U.S. embassy police training program in the country, a former Henry County police officer, obtained a grant to train defense attorneys.
Having moved from an “inquisitorial system” in which a judge alone decided an accused person’s fate to one much like the American model, Georgians want to “emulate what we have,” he said.
In the 35 trials that have been held in the past five years, defense attorneys have been outmatched by prosecutors who’ve benefited from more rigorous training.
Since 2010, several American federal prosecutors have lived in the nation’s capital, Tbilisi, and been attached to the U.S. Embassy as “resident legal advisers” to the chief Georgian prosecutor, the country’s version of the U.S. attorney general, he said.
GBI agents have taught more than 40 classes through the agency’s Georgia to Georgia Law Enforcement Exchange Program, providing instruction in crime scene investigation, how to conduct an interview, leadership and other law enforcement fields, said Steve Foster, who as assistant special agent in charge coordinates the GBI’s crime scene specialists statewide.
Agents also have helped the Georgians’ crime lab become internationally accredited.
But no training had been provided for the country’s 5,000 defense lawyers.
Laura Hogue likened the situation to a three-legged stool.
After prosecutors and police had been trained, authorities realized “we’re missing a leg,” she said.
“In order to have this stand properly, we have to begin bringing folks over here to start talking about trial practice skills for criminal defense attorneys.”
As it is, defense lawyers are frustrated, and the acquittal rate is “terribly low,” she said.
Reciting a common saying in the country, Franklin Hogue said, “Having a defense lawyer there is like putting flowers on a dead man,” an act that doesn’t really benefit the deceased.
Coggins said the group spent a week meeting with lawyers, prosecutors, judges, representatives of the bar association and people from their legal aid office — the Georgian version of a public defender’s office — to determine how best they could help.
She said the Georgian lawyers welcome and are receptive to the American group’s help.
Speaking through an interpreter, a prominent defense attorney said, “We need this like we need air,” Laura Hogue recalled.
He went on to say, “Our lawyers cannot survive without it,” she said.
“On the ground floor” for change
Teaching isn’t new to the group tasked with providing aid to their peers abroad.
Five of the seven team members have taught classes offered by the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The Hogues and Coggins also have taught courses through the National Criminal Defense College.
Coggins said she feels honored to have been asked to work on the team and hopes the group can make a difference.
“We’re really on the ground floor of an amazing positive change in their criminal justice system,” she said. “It’s exciting, overwhelming, humbling.”
It’s a reminder of the importance of having a just system and “how beautiful what we have here is,” Laura Hogue said.
Beginning in January, the country of about 4 million people is set to expand the crimes for which jury trials can be held to include 19. Eventually, trials will be offered for all crimes.
But Georgia still has a ways to go before it’ll be prepared for more trials.
It faces logistical issues by having only two courthouses with a courtroom each suitable for a jury. Construction and renovation is underway at a couple more courthouses, but that still may not be enough, depending on the demand for trials, Laura Hogue said.
As it is now, jury selection is taking two to four months to complete for a single case. In Bibb County, the typical jury selection for a murder case takes a day or less.
There’s also a battle for defense attorneys to overcome the perception that people called as witnesses and jurors won’t be in danger or face repercussions based on a trial verdict, Laura Hogue said.
What’s more, there are some people who want the system to revert to the way it once was, where a judge alone decided an accused person’s fate, Franklin Hogue said.
In the coming months, team members will create a program to present in their first training session when they return to Georgia in February.