Georgia's public defender system is still trying to recover its financial footing five years after a courthouse gunman racked up a $3 million taxpayer-funded defense tab on the way to his conviction.
The state's ailing system to defend the poor has struggled almost since its start in 2005, hamstrung not just by the costly Brian Nichols case but also because of the lukewarm support from legislators and a dismal economy.
The state now can't afford to pay to defend the accused in several capital punishment cases, leaving them waiting in jail for years before their trials start. Some, like Khan Dinh Phan, have appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court for help. They have asked that their cases be dismissed because the delays violated their right to a speedy trial.
Georgia has faced similar problems before. State legislators created the public defender system precisely because individual counties struggled to provide adequate legal defense for the poor. But prosecutors and defense attorneys say it may take drastic measures to recover from the Nichols' case, one of the statewide system's first high-profile tests.
Prosecutors said Nichols' defense should have cost about $500,000. But expenses ballooned with expert witnesses and attorneys fees. Nichols was spared death and sentenced to life in December 2008 for killing of a judge, a court reporter, a sheriff's deputy and a federal agent during the rampage.