Supreme Court asked to decide Georgia death-penalty appeal

By: Bill Rankin
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The U.S. Supreme Court is being asked to hear a case that could decide whether Georgia can afford the death penalty.

On Tuesday, lawyers for Jamie Ryan Weis petitioned the high court to consider a recent 4-3 ruling by the Georgia Supreme Court that denied Weis’ bid to bar a death penalty prosecution because he sat in jail for more than two years without lawyers to defend him.

"This case involves the question of whether there is such a complete breakdown in providing counsel for the accused that a fair trial is impossible," said the petition, filed by Stephen Bright, one of Weis' attorneys. "He faces not a ‘trial,' as that term is understood as a contest between adversaries, but the fate of those thrown to the lions."

Weis is charged with killing Catherine King during a 2006 burglary in Pike County. The Georgia Public Defender Standards Council appointed two private lawyers to represent him, but the case stalled when the agency ran out of money to pay for the defense. When Weis'  lawyers asked that the case be delayed until funds were available, the district attorney moved to replace the lawyers with two local public defenders. Even though the defenders said they were overwhelmed and did not have adequate resources to defend a capital case, then-Superior Court Judge Johnnie Caldwell approved the prosecution's motion.

Weis later appealed, asking the state Supreme Court to bar the death penalty on grounds his right to a speedy trial was violated. The court rejected the appeal, blaming most of the delays on Weis and his lawyers.

In the petition, Bright called the proceedings a "sham." All the while, Bright wrote, Weis "had no lawyer working on his case, no guiding hand, none of the basic tools of an adequate defense. Instead, he experienced the most severe imbalance of power between the state and the accused imaginable."

The case would have gone to trial already if Georgia had appropriated enough money to pay for indigent defense representation in capital cases, Bright wrote. Since he was charged, Weis, who is mentally ill, has attempted suicide three times and his mother, who was to be a key witness at his trial, has passed away, he said.