Poor drug defendants often can't get lawyers Public defender's office is too swamped to help

October 15, 1998|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

It's Wednesday morning, and Andre N. Cooper is in Baltimore Circuit Court facing 20 years in prison for felony drug charges. Prosecutors offer him a plea bargain that would keep him out of jail.

He needs to think about it, he says. Where does the 30-year-old cook turn to mull his future?

To his mother. There's no one else. He has no attorney and no hope of getting one soon.

Cooper is one of 350 people charged with felony crimes in Baltimore that the Office of Public Defender -- which provides attorneys for the poor -- says it can't help. The office says it is too swamped to provide attorneys for defendants in two drug courts, opened last spring to speed up processing for the increased number of such cases.

The breakdown in this critical wing of Baltimore's criminal justice system means charges in some of the cases could be dismissed because of violations of the state's speedy trial rules. Such violations might begin imperiling cases by the end of next month.

Cases also are taking longer to resolve as plea negotiations are put on hold and trial dates are postponed. At stake, officials say, is nothing less than the proper administration of justice. All defendants have the right to an attorney by law.

"Someone needs to do something," said Judge Marcella A. Holland, who presides over one of the courts that the public defender's office says it can't staff. "It just keeps everything in a state of limbo."

There are days when all 30 defendants awaiting arraignment or trial in Holland's courtroom have been told they can't get a public defender.

"It's a sad state of affairs," she said.

For Cooper, who has never been arrested on such serious charges, it's just wrong. Arrested in July, he got a letter from the public defender's office three weeks ago. The letter said that he qualified for a free attorney, but his case "had been scheduled in a court that [the office is] unable to staff at this time."

"We have a right to be defended," said the father of two who earns $8 an hour working in a cafeteria. "It ain't fair."

All sides of the bench are scrambling to find ways to hire more public defenders and get attorneys for defendants. Judges are asking attorneys if they want to volunteer to take cases. And the prosecutors support efforts by the public defender's office to secure more funding.

Officials from the public defender's office say that Baltimore needs 10 more attorneys as well as support staff. Thirty-two attorneys handle all felony trials.

"All the parties involved are working cooperatively to resolve the matter," said Ronald A. Karasic, deputy state public defender.

Michael Millemann, a law professor at the University of Maryland, said historically the public defender's office has been underfunded.

Having an attorney "is viewed by many legislators as being a luxury," Millemann said. "The constituency is not one that anyone pays attention to. It's the criminal constituency."

The problems started last May when Baltimore's chief judge added two drug courts -- bringing the total to six -- because of an influx of cases into the system. About 80 percent of the 5,000 defendants awaiting trial in Circuit Court are charged with drug crimes, said Joseph H. H. Kaplan, Baltimore's chief judge.

Public defenders began sending letters to defendants telling them that they could not represent them. The letters urge defendants to seek private counsel or ask the judge to appoint a private attorney for them.

Judge Joseph McCurdy said appointing attorneys is not as easy as it sounds. The Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys Association rejected a plea for volunteers this fall. It argued that private attorneys should not be held accountable for politicians' efforts to look tough on crime by not approving money for public defenders.

"You can't just go out and grab [attorneys] off the street," McCurdy said. "I'm hopeful that the matter is going to be resolved, but at this time I don't know how that is going to happen."

Yesterday, Cooper became one less case that officials have to worry about. He pleaded guilty and received a two-year suspended prison sentence.

Pub Date: 10/15/98

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