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GA Judge in Capital Defense Cost Maelstrom Lawyers Up

Posted Nov 6, 2007 3:03 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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A Georgia judge who has become a lightning rod for criticism over the high cost of defending a death penalty case has now got his own counsel.

Profiled in a recent New York Times article as judicial scapegoat for those seeking to blame someone for what it costs to represent a defendant facing potential execution, Superior Court Judge Hilton M. Fuller Jr. is now represented by two Atlanta attorneys, reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. They are: C.B. Rogers and Emmet Bondurant, who formerly chaired the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council.

Given the complexity of the crime at issue in the case over which Fuller is presiding—defendant Brian Nichols faces a 54-count indictment in a March 11, 2005 courthouse shooting in which four people, including a Fulton County judge, were murdered—it is not surprising that defense costs have already exceeded $1 million, many observers say.

However, as discussed in an earlier ABAJournal.com post, the prosecution in the Nichols case has asked the Georgia Supreme Court to remove Fuller from the case, contending that he has exceeded his authority in defense-funding matters. Meanwhile, some legislators—who say the current defense cost tab is closer to $2 million—are pursuing possible impeachment of the judge, another ABAJournal.com post notes.

Fuller, a widely respected jurist from another county who was asked to take the Fulton County murder case after local judges recused themselves, has drawn fire by refusing to proceed with Nichols' trial until defense lawyers are paid. The state agency in charge of doing so hasn't questioned the validity of the defense bills but says it has no money to do so given its annual budget of just under $5 million, the Times reports.

"The attack on him is unfair," says Rogers of his new judicial client. "He is a conscientious man who is trying to deal with a difficult problem. He's doing his best."

The prosecution could resolve the financial issue by accepting Nichols' guilty plea in exchange for a promise of life imprisonment, but has declined to do so.

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