Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Level Playing Field

During the 2005 trial of Brian Nichols for rape and false imprisonment, the State of Georgia alleged the following events occurred:
After a female sheriff's deputy, Cynthia Hall, removed Nichol's handcuffs so he could change into civilian clothes for trial, Nichols attacked the deputy and took her sidearm. According to hospital sources deputy Hall suffered bruising to her brain and some fractures around her face. After the attack her condition was critical, but she survived.

Nichols then crossed over to another courthouse where he entered the private chambers of Judge Rowland W. Barnes. While there he encountered another deputy, overpowered him and took his weapon. Nichols then entered Barnes' courtroom from a door behind the judge's bench, where Barnes was presiding over a civil trial, and shot him in the back of the head. Nichols then shot Julie Brandau, the court reporter. As he made his escape from the courthouse Nichols shot Sgt. Hoyt Teasley, a pursuing deputy. Barnes and the court reporter died at the scene and the deputy was pronounced dead on arrival.

During his escape Nichols tried to carjack at least three vehicles, ending up in a multilevel parking structure. He first took a tow truck at gun point outside the courtroom. Later he hijacked a car from Don O'Briant, a reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Nichols assault O'Briant to gain control of the car. Nichols was charged with murder, kidnapping, robbery, aggravated assault on a police officer, battery, theft, carjacking, and escape. He subsequently pled not guilty to the charges.

Jury selection began in January, 2007. However, Nichols' attorneys disclosed at that time they wanted to pursue a mental health defense. Nichols' pre-trial hearing commenced in mid-September, 2007 when his lawyers claimed they were not receiving enough funding. Nichols' attorneys attributed this to the Georgia legislature limiting state funding for defense attorneys.
Last week the president of the State Bar of Georgia, Gerald M. Edenfield, wrote here about the trial. Edenfield explained the foundational importance of the state and defense playing on a level playing field when prosecuting and defending the criminally accused. Edenfield wrote:
The pursuit of justice on behalf of crime victims and the public — balanced against the constitutional rights of the accused to a fair trial and due process — frequently involves complicated issues that frustrate prosecutors and defense attorneys alike. This is especially true in death penalty cases, when all parties are particularly careful to ensure the proper verdict is reached and, if there is a conviction, the appropriate sentence is imposed. . .

All of us must remember that a level playing field between prosecution and defense is essential to our criminal justice system — no matter how complex or how open-and-shut the case appears to be from the outside. And because we have an appeals process designed to correct any errors that might be made at the original trial, "swift justice" requires the trial judge to get it right the first time.

Neither justice nor the crime victim is well served when the wrong person is convicted. The same is true when the right person is convicted under circumstances that would result in the conviction being overturned on appeal, because the defendant did not receive a fair trial.

When Edenfield speaks of receiving a fair trial he does not mean whether the defendant has competent counsel, or whether counsel is performing adequately to protect their client's constitutional right to effective counsel. What Edenfield speaks of is money. The money a defense team needs to properly investigate and explore avenues of defense. In Nichol's case, the money the State of Georgia must cough-up to adequately finance his lawyers.

In cases like these, when the community perceives a case is "open and shut," they demand justice be served - swiftly - and cheaply. This often results in the judiciary restricting funds to the defense for investigation and expert assistance.

When funds for the defense are limited, justice is not served. In other words, the playing field is critically lopsided in favor of the prosecution. However, the public must understand "no matter how complex or how open-and-shut the case appears to be . . . "swift justice" requires the trial judge to get it right the first time." That means making sure the defense gets all the money they need to level the playing field. A field where both sides have the opportunity to present their case in the most persuasive way possible.

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