ATLANTA — The U.S. Supreme Court has stepped into four Georgia death penalty cases in the last year or so, and it could yet again intervene — this time over a defendant who said he languished in jail because the state couldn't pay his lawyers.
It's the latest test for Georgia's justice system, which has come under scrutiny in recent years. The state's new public defender program has had funding trouble ever since it spent $3 million in 2008 defending Brian Nichols, the man convicted of killing a judge, court reporter, sheriff's deputy and federal agent during a 2005 rampage at an Atlanta courthouse. And the Georgia Supreme Court has been criticized for not reviewing death penalty appeals closely enough.
In this case, Jamie Ryan Weis, who is accused of killing a 73-year-old woman, argues there was a "complete breakdown" in the system when he sat in jail without an attorney for more than two years. The U.S. Supreme Court could decide after a closed-door conference Sept. 27 whether it wants to intervene.
"It's especially surprising because this Supreme Court is not an anti-death penalty court," said Donald E. Wilkes Jr., a University of Georgia Law School professor who specializes in death penalty cases. "Maybe they think that Georgia is giving the death penalty a bad name, if that's possible."
But Weis' case may not be as simple as he claims. Prosecutors said Weis was never without legal representation, though they concede his lawyers were limited by a funding shortfall.
"The Georgia Supreme Court properly determined there was not a systemic breakdown in the indigent defense system in Georgia," Beth Burton, a senior Georgia assistant attorney general, said in arguments.
Weis was charged in the February 2006 killing of Catherine King, by blunt force injuries and two gunshot wounds to the head during a robbery. He has pleaded not guilty.
Two private attorneys were appointed to represent him, but when the state couldn't afford to pay them, a judge ordered two public defenders even though they said they had overwhelming caseloads. After Weis refused to work with them, appellate attorneys from the Southern Center for Human Rights took up his case for free, and argued his right to a speedy trial was violated.
The Georgia Supreme Court rejected the speedy trial appeal in March in a 4-3 ruling, finding that Weis played a key role in the delays. His new attorneys then asked the U.S. Supreme Court to step in.
The case has taken a toll on Weis. He has attempted to commit suicide three times, and his attorney Steven Bright said Weis has told the judge several times he wanted to give up the legal fight and go to trial, only to change his mind.
"He can't sleep. He's a nervous wreck. And amid all this uncertainty, not having a lawyer just made everything worse," said Bright, the president of the Atlanta-based center. "Even for a normal person facing the death penalty, being able to talk to a lawyer about our legal plight would be critical. But for somebody who is mentally ill, to go without a lawyer is agonizing."
Weis' attorneys blame the funding shortfall on the Georgia Legislature's decision to divert $30 million raised from court fines and fees from the public defender system to the state's general fund.
Weis' dilemma is the most immediate in a string of capital cases scrutinized by the nation's highest court, which sent a warning of sorts in October 2008 when Justice John Paul Stevens wrote a scathing opinion that said the Georgia Supreme Court carried out an "utterly perfunctory" review of a death penalty case.
In the most high-profile case, the court in August 2009 granted death row inmate Troy Davis a rare hearing to test his claims that he was wrongfully convicted of the 1989 slaying of an off-duty police officer. After the hearing, a federal judge ruled the new evidence amounted to little more than "smoke and mirrors," but his attorneys are appealing and the case could again wind up before the nation's high court.
The top court also asked a federal appeals court in May to review the case of Lawrence Joseph Jefferson, a death row inmate convicted of beating a co-worker to death in 1985 with a tree limb. Jefferson claims his lawyers failed to investigate a traumatic head injury he suffered as a child.
A month later, the Supreme Court ordered Georgia judges to consider claims that DeMarcus Ali Sears' defense lawyers mishandled his death penalty case. Sears was sentenced to death for kidnapping and then raping and killing 59-year-old Gloria Wilbur.
Perhaps the most unusual cases, though, came in January when a divided U.S. Supreme Court ordered the appeals court to review a 1993 Georgia death penalty case because of allegations that a juror sent raunchy gifts made of chocolate to the judge and a courtroom bailiff at the end of the trial.
The court ruled 5-4 to set aside an appeals court ruling that upheld a death sentence against Marcus Wellons, who was convicted and sentenced to death for raping and strangling a 15-year-old.
(This version CORRECTS spelling of "Jamie" in third paragraph.)
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