The 4-3 ruling found that a lack of funding "was not the sole factor" that delayed the trial of Jamie Ryan Weis. The opinion, written by Justice Harold Melton, concluded that Weis played a key role in delaying the trial, too, when he refused to work with new public defenders appointed to represent him.
"This action by Weis caused further delay by making it nearly impossible for his new attorneys to move the case forward and such delay must necessarily be weighed against Weis," wrote Melton, who was joined in the ruling by Presiding Justice George Carley and Justices Harris Hines and David Nahmias.
In a sharply written dissent, Justice Hugh Thompson blamed state prosecutors for taking an "inordinate amount of time" to decide whether to seek the death penalty. Once prosecutors made that choice, he wrote, they must then ensure enough funding for a "full and vigorous defense."
"The State cannot shirk this responsibility because it is experiencing budgetary constraints. It still must fulfill its constitutional obligation to bring those accused of committing crimes to trial in a speedy manner," wrote Thompson, who was joined by Chief Justice Carol Hunstein and Justice Robert Benham.
The ruling was a victory for the cash-strapped public defender system, which has been targeted by a flurry of legal challenges from civil rights groups who claim it is failing its mission to provide adequate legal defense for Georgia's poor defendants. Among other complaints, they say the state failed to hire attorneys for 100 or so convicted inmates who are seeking to file an appeal.
The system has also been a favorite target of conservative lawmakers, who have peppered the system with criticism ever since it picked up the $3 million taxpayer-funded defense tab for the 2008 trial of courthouse gunman Brian Nichols. Prosecutors said Nichols' defense should have cost about $500,000.
Weis, who is charged with the February 2006 killing of a 73-year-old Pike County woman, became the latest flashpoint in the public defender debate when his two public defenders filed an emergency motion in 2007 complaining they were not being paid and had no funds for expert witnesses.
A judge tried to assign him with two other attorneys being funded by local coffers, but Weis refused to work with them. After his two public defenders were reinstated in February 2009, they filed a motion seeking to dismiss the charges because they were still not being paid.
Stephen Bright, who represented Weis in the appeals, said the court's ruling encourages a system where attorneys are "lawyers in name only" without funding or resources to investigate and defend capital punishment cases. He called the court's decision "'Alice in Wonderland' justice."
"The Georgia Supreme Court should have stood up and said to the Legislature, 'If you're going to pursue the death penalty, we need adequate defense funding,'" said Bright of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights. "You can't provide all the money to the prosecution and not provide any to the defense and then say it's the defendant's fault."
Public Defender Standards Council director Mack Crawford could not immediately be reached for comment but he has long argued that the agency is doing the best it can to fulfill its constitutional duties while coping with stiff budget cuts.
The Weis ruling isn't the last that could determine how the state handles death penalty defenses. The court could soon issue a ruling in a capital case involving Khan Dinh Phan, who has been waiting in jail for almost five years for a lawyer to represent him on charges that he killed a man and his 2-year-old son in 2004.