Officials vow legal aid for indigent Plan to provide lawyers for 350 facing drug charges

October 16, 1998|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Baltimore judges and attorneys for the indigent said yesterday they would solve in a "week or so" a problem that has been mounting for months: Hundreds of poor defendants charged with felonies have no one to represent them in court.

Officials won't say how. They won't say exactly when. They will only say they have a plan to make sure 350 defendants facing felony drug charges do not have their constitutional rights violated.

Legal experts say the officials had better mean it.

"It is an outrage," said Abe Krash, an attorney and Georgetown law professor who worked on the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Gideon vs. Wainwright. That 1963 case established that all defendants have a right to counsel. "The state court has a duty to make sure that defendants are represented."

Baltimore's chief judge and representatives of the Office of Public Defender, which provides attorneys to those who cannot afford them, met for about two hours yesterday with Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell at the Baltimore Circuit Courthouse.

As they left, Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph P. McCurdy, who attended the meeting, said they were committed to solving the problem.

State law requires that defendants be tried within 180 days of their first court appearance. Some might reach that deadline by the end of November, which could result in dismissal of charges against them.

"The details haven't been finalized. It requires a lot of work," McCurdy said. "You're going to start seeing solutions probably within the next week or so."

The problems started in May when Baltimore's Circuit Administrative Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan opened two new criminal courts to address an influx of drug cases. The new drug courts came just after the legislative session and at the end of the budget year. That meant prosecutors and defense attorneys had little chance to get additional funds for more staff.

Prosecutors -- who vastly outnumber public defenders -- moved attorneys around so they could staff the courts. The public defenders began sending letters to defendants telling them they were eligible for a free lawyer, but the office could not provide them with one. The letters urged each defendant to find a private attorney or ask the judge hearing his case to appoint one.

"We regret we are unable to assist you at this time," the letters said.

Judge Robert C. Murphy, the retired chief of the Court of Appeals, said yesterday that the situation must be fixed or criminals may escape prosecution.

"It's all about money and people to do the work," said Murphy, whose daughter, an attorney, wants to volunteer to defend some of the people. Legislators, who decide how to fund the criminal justice system, "have to come to grips with that or we are going to have a lot of people who are back out on the street."

The dearth of defenders has meant that people charged with crimes tend to greet court proceedings with blank stares. On a recent day, a prosecutor in one of the two unstaffed courts had to give evidence that he planned to use at trial -- as required by law -- to the defendant because he had no attorney.

The man, Frank Blackwell, 18, of Northeast Baltimore, looked mystified as he thumbed through the paperwork. Outside court, Blackwell, who is charged with possessing cocaine with the intent to distribute it, said he had received a letter from the public defender's office but he had no money to hire an attorney. "What do I have to do" to get one? he asked a reporter.

Judge Marcella A. Holland, who presides over one of the drug courts without public defenders, said sometimes she feels like a counselor. If a defendant is unrepresented, she said, it is her duty to advise him of his rights and options.

"When an indigent person comes in unrepresented," she said, "they have no one in the courtroom to look out for them. That's my duty."

Even after a plan is put in place to correct the problem, experts said, there could be legal trouble. Any plea bargains entered into could be challenged at a later appeal.

"It sounds like we have almost come full circle to the days where people were not constitutionally entitled to a lawyer," said Douglas L. Colbert, a law professor at the University of Maryland. Our whole system is based upon fairness and equity under the law."

Pub Date: 10/16/98

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