Yesterday, the AJC had a story on the legal defense bill of Brian Nichols, the man who wreaked havoc in downtown Atlanta after escaping from custody and killing a judge among other officials, and was ultimately sentenced to life in prison rather than death. According to the article, the bill is upward of $3 million, and growing. But it was the statement of Mike Mears, who is described by the AJC as “a veteran death penalty lawyer who initially oversaw payments to the defense” that has the community, including the Georgia criminal defense bar, of which I am a member, riled up.
Here is what Mears said:
“It was a Cadillac defense,” said Mears, who was director of the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council at the time. “They had a judge sitting on the bench who I would describe as a … dream judge. He was a judge who was willing to give them whatever they wanted without too many restrictions.”
I won’t go into details but the general sentiment among the criminal defense bar here was (1) shock and anger at Mears and (2) praise for Judge Fuller. I have never practiced nor do I know Judge Fuller, so I cannot speak to the latter. As to Mears’ comments, I can see how someone, especially those of us who spend the bulk of their professional and perhaps personal lives defending individuals like Nichols, would take exception and voice disapproval. However, I am rather dubious of the quotation snagged and reported by the AJC, and would not be surprised if it was taken out of context (the usual charge, I know, but still, it merits an explanation).
As for the notion of a Cadillac defense being somehow detrimental to the well-being of the public and our system of justice, let me just say that anyone charged with having committed a criminal offense is entitled to a fair trial, which, in criminal defense parlance, means the vigorous defense of the client. I can only venture to guess that many of those criticizing the cost o Nichols’ defense would demand an equally spirited defense if faced with the same predicament. Moreover, you can bet that the prosecution won’t think twice before spending your hard-earned taxpayer dollars in trying to secure a conviction. By sanctioning that approach but denying the accused the same resources, which, it should be noted, already happens in perhaps the bulk of criminal matters, we only breed greater distrust of our criminal justice process, which, in turn, leads to tragedies of Nichols-ian magnitude.