Another way | Maryland offers lessons for Georgia’s public defender system
Experts believe Maryland’s resources and training improves the quality of its legal representation.
Baltimore, MD. (Atlanta News First) - On the 15th floor of a Baltimore downtown high-rise office building, Jeff Gilleran holds the cartilage of a bullet, breaking down what happens next after someone pulls the trigger of a gun.
As the chief attorney in the forensics division for Maryland’s Office of the Public Defender, Gilleran works to discredit flawed forensics masquerading as science used by prosecutors in criminal cases.
Ballistics matching is among them. It’s a technique used by firearms examiners who claim they can identify a bullet fired from a specific gun based on the markings it leaves behind. Until recently, prosecutors have used it to put people in prison for years without little pushback. Defense attorneys point to a 2016 report by President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology that found the technique was not full proof.
“The discipline essentially boils down to, ‘I know a match when I see it.’ So, we don’t know how many times firearms examiners have gotten it wrong,” Gilleran said. “You can’t defend modern criminal prosecution unless you have the resources like us.”
Maryland’s forensics division is one of 11 specialized units within the state’s public defender system that offer expert legal defense typically only afforded to the wealthy, but is now available to the poor who cannot afford an attorney. Natasha Dartigue is head of the state agency. “The quality of your representation should not matter with how large or how small your bank account is,” Dartigue said.
Maryland’s public defender system still faces public defender staffing shortages and case load challenges as Georgia’s, but experts believe the resources and training it provides to its attorneys vastly improves the quality of its legal representation.
Other specialized units in Maryland’s system include lawyers specializing in parental defense, mental health and a de-incarceration; Maryland also has a statewide social workers division. While a few of Georgia’s urban judicial circuits, including Atlanta, have similar resources, in-house expertise are not available statewide. In other cases, Georgia has to pay for the experts.
Lisa Monet Wayne, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, says Maryland’s specialized legal defense units allows its lawyers to focusing on their clients. “That allows lawyers to be lawyers and not have to be social workers, and paralegals and investigators; you have all those in staff,” she said. “Also in those specialized units, those lawyers are able to train other lawyers.”
The Georgia Public Defender Council (GPDC) is the taxpayer funded agency in charge of appointing lawyers to people charged with crimes who cannot afford an attorney. Atlanta News First Investigates repeatedly requested a list of all statewide specialized units currently in operation, but did not get a response.
According to four current agency employees who work in various divisions and regions, Atlanta News First Investigates identified at least three specialized units.
One of them includes the “Cross-Circuit Representation Program,” which requires attorneys to travel across the state to rural counties that do not have enough attorneys. The unit mirrors the description one agency’s attorney described to a Fulton County Superior Court judge during a virtual hearing in November 2022.
In that hearing, attorney Arnold Regas told Judge Robert McBurney he travels the state trying murder cases for the GPDC. “So yes, it is not sustainable for me personally to be in multiple places at the same time,” Regas said.
Sources within the agency also confirm the GPDC has a unit focusing on defendants accused of crimes who are allegedly connected to gangs. According to LinkedIn, Shawn Hoover is the unit’s senior attorney, and has held the position for nearly a year.
Georgia has seen an influx of multi-defendant cases over the past few years, which makes it difficult to find attorneys for defendants because all of the court-appointed lawyers must come from separate offices to avoid conflicts of interest.
The state also has a unit specializing in defending parents accused of abuse or neglect, but its resources are only available in Fulton County’s judicial circuit, Georgia’s largest.
Some of Georgia’s court-appointed attorneys juggle hundreds of cases at time. Maryland admits its attorney caseloads can be high. “Here’s the bottom-line, if I’m carrying a thousand cases, it doesn’t matter how well trained I am, it doesn’t matter how many specialty task forces may be within the system, I’m overwhelmed,” Monet Wayne said. “I can’t do it.”
‘The Sixth’ is an on-going investigative series that sheds light on a constitutional crisis impacting people accused of crimes, victims and the public’s trust in the criminal justice system. Atlanta News First Investigative Reporter Andy Pierrotti traveled to Georgia, Wisconsin, Oregon and Maryland to document what happens when there are no attorneys available to represent people accused of crimes. Click here for links to review all 12 episodes in series.
Maryland’s process of hiring top public defenders also differs from Georgia. The head of Maryland’s system is hired by a state board, while Georgia’s is appointed by the governor. Because she’s hired by a board, Dartigue said it allows her more flexibility to publicly advocate for funding from lawmakers and to push against or champion legislation impacting public defense.
“Essentially it gives me that autonomy to advocate in the best interest of my agency as well as the individuals of the clients we serve,” Dartigue said.
If there’s something you would like Atlanta News First Investigative Reporter Andy Pierrotti to look into, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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