Sunday, September 16, 2007

Lawyers: Toss Conflict Counsel Decisions

Criminal defense group seeks reversal of appointments.

By Dana Willhoit at
The ledger

The Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has written to Attorney General Bill McCollum asking him to reverse the appointment of five new "conflict counsel" lawyers, who are meant to create a second public defender system.

The conflict counsel lawyers will oversee hundreds of lawyers statewide who will be appointed to represent defendants in cases where more than one person is accused of a crime and can't afford their own lawyer. The Public Defender's office can only represent one defendant in such cases because there may be conflicts of interest with the other defendant.

In his letter, A. Russell Smith, president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, takes issue with several aspects of the new law creating the conflict counsels and lowering the fee cap for court-appointed lawyers.

Smith said that the law states that the conflict counsels are another type of public defender. Public defenders are elected every four years, not appointed, Smith said.

The governor has appointed five conflict counsels, including Jackson Flyte, a Bartow lawyer who would oversee an office that covers the same boundaries as the Second Judicial District.

They are already on the government payroll and preparing to hire lawyers and office support staff and find office space so that they can have the Office of Conflict Counsel up and running and ready to represent people by Jan. 1.

The law also has set new, low caps for court-appointed lawyers' fees, causing many lawyers statewide to refuse court-appointed work. Lawyers would be paid a maximum of only $15,000 to represent a client facing the death penalty.

In Polk County, the list of lawyers willing to take on court-appointed cases dropped from 115 to 46, or 60 percent, and statewide the number has gone down 68 percent.

In two recent murder cases in Polk County, one with five defendants and one with three defendants, Judge J. Michael Hunter has been unable to find lawyers for all of the accused.

In Smith's letter, he asks that McCollum file the petition quickly. "The Act is rapidly precipitating a crisis in the delivery of competent legal services to indigent Floridians who have been accused of crimes. It has become obvious to everyone with the criminal justice system that it simply will not work."

Smith also said, "I hope that you will provide me with a written answer pertaining to this issue quickly, so that our Association may take independent action if your office declines to pursue this important Constitutional issue."

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