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Public defender banned from jail for “questionable relationship” with inmate

By BECKY PURSER - bpurser@macon.com

UPDATE (June 2, 2010): Houston sheriff lifts jail ban on public defender

PERRY — Houston County public defender Nick White has been banned from the Houston County jail after a “questionable relationship” and “excessive visits” with a female inmate, said the head of the jail.

But White said he has done nothing inappropriate and the ban is politically motivated. Houston County Sheriff Cullen Talton said that’s not so.

“There hasn’t been anything inappropriate, and every action was in full view of officers in the jail,” White said. “I’ve got nothing to hide.”

Houston County sheriff’s Maj. Charles Holt, who is over the operation of the jail, said White visited the inmate, whose name was not disclosed, 28 of 32 days with some visits lasting as long as three hours.

White also is accused of bringing “contraband” into the jail for the inmate, such as food, playing cards and poetry, which is forbidden by posted jail policy and state law, Holt said. He said jail officers have been fired for giving contraband to inmates, and White, as an officer of the court, knew better.

In addition, other inmates represented by White complained White spent more time with the inmate than with them, Holt said.

Holt said he took this information to the sheriff, who instituted the ban Monday against White meeting with clients at the jail.

But White said his visits to the jail were not limited to the inmate but spread among other inmates he represented — nor did he spend all of three hours with the one inmate.

White said he had spent a lot of time on this inmate’s case to attempt to get a drug conviction modified because of its potential impact on a custody dispute over her 4-month-old child. He also said the food was a Pop-Tart he split with the inmate because he didn’t want to eat it in front of her, and he had grabbed it from his office on the way out before stopping to visit with her.

And White said, yes, he did play cards with the inmate while the two waited for her parents for a joint visit. White said he also gave her a poem for her child that he’d written about Peeps candy as well as a copy of the poem “The Walrus and The Carpenter” by Lewis Carroll.

Moreover, White said none of those actions are unusual. He said even at the old jail, if he came in with a sausage biscuit in the morning when visiting a client, he would share that.

When the jail officer complained about the inmate eating the Pop Tart, White said he apologized. He also said he received permission from the person at the front desk of the jail to bring the inmate the poem.

White said while state law gives the sheriff and jail administrator the right to govern the jail and set the rules for its operation, the U.S. Constitution gives each of his clients the right to meet with him as his or her public defense attorney.

As a result of the ban, the meetings are now taking place at the public defender’s office in the Houston County Courthouse, White said. He said he is still meeting with the same inmates, including the one. White characterized the ban as ridiculous and politically motivated because he disagreed with the sheriff’s assertion that judges were releasing more people on bond and because he challenged instances of people being held longer than 48 hours without being charged as required by law.

“That doesn’t have one thing to do with what he did,” Talton said in response to White’s comments about the bond issue. Talton also said only one person was held “for just a little longer” than the 48 hours because a Warner Robins police officer was late getting a warrant over.

“That doesn’t have anything to do with an hour-and-a-half of playing cards with an inmate or two or three times a day visiting one certain inmate. ... That doesn’t have anything to do with that,” Talton said.

“(White) brings food in there, and he knows that’s against the rules. ... If he did all of those clients that way, he wouldn’t have time for anybody else.”

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