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Disarray at public defender office could delay murder case

Will Davis, publisher of the Monroe County Reporter is reporting Towaliga Circuit public defender Wanda Johnson is out after a dustup among personnel. Her dismissal could delay the upcoming murder trial of Jamarris Williams, who is or was represented by Johnson, and multiple additional public defender cases. The vast majority of criminal defendants in Lamar superior use the public defender’s office at considerable expense to the taxpaying public. The use is rampant, leading some to describe it as just another entitlement program. Here is Davis’ account which will be published Tuesday: Monroe County public defender Jim Kight has been fired for real this time, but it appears the woman who fired him may soon lose her job too. The county’s public defender for the past eight years, Kight’s announcement to an open courtroom in June that he had been fired brought to light a long-simmering dispute with his boss, Wanda Johnson. Days later he was apparently “un-fired” but he received a formal termination letter last Wednesday. ”Your continued absence from this office is unfair to your clients as well as the others in our office,” wrote Johnson, Kight’s supervisor and the public defender for the entire Towaliga Judicial Circuit. “I, in good faith, cannot allow this to continue.” Johnson told the Reporter that they hadn’t seen Kight in the office in a month and said he walked out on his clients last week. In May, Kight had complained to the state that Johnson kept appalling working conditions and refused to hire more help. It appears Johnson may soon be out of her job as well. The Towaliga circuit’s public defender supervisory panel, created by the legislature to oversee the circuit’s public defender’s office, has finally resumed meetings after years of dormancy. The panel recommended two new attorneys to take Johnson’s place as the circuit’s public defender. They are Douglas Smith of Marietta and Neil Smith of Jonesboro. Johnson, Kight and assistant public defender Elmo Remick had all applied for the job as well. Remick said he’s surprised the panel didn’t recommend someone local. Made up of Monroe County county attorney Mike Dillon and Barnesville attorney Eric Hearn (the identity of the third member of the panel is unknown), the council met on Wednesday behind closed doors and approved recommending Smith and Smith in a letter to the Atlanta office that oversees Georgia’s public defenders. The Atlanta office will make the final decision. Controversy over the public defender’s office spilled into public view in June when Kight told Monroe County Superior Court Judge Tommy Wilson that he was unable to represent a client in a scheduled trial due to the conflict with Johnson. Kight filed a 53-page motion in the case outlining numerous complaints against her. Kight said Johnson, who makes $95,000 per year, had refused to fill vacancies, leaving him with a difficult workload, and kept filthy, appalling work conditions with little air conditioning. Kight claimed a conversation with Johnson that he recorded proved she had fired him in retaliation for taking his complaints to the public defender’s office in Atlanta. That, he said, violated whistle-blower protections in state law. Nevertheless, Kight wound up representing his client in court that week, winning an acquittal, and a week later Johnson told the Reporter that her supervisors in Atlanta wouldn’t let her fire Kight. Meanwhile, the public defender’s office moved from a run-down Johnston Street home to office space on Jackson Street. But last Wednesday, Kight said he was in a Monroe County courtroom for pre-trial motions when Remick handed him a letter from Johnson formally firing him and telling him to turn in his computer. Kight, who made $62,700 per year and often worked out of his home in St. Augustine, Fla., said he’s very frustrated by the situation. He said that Johnson had approved all his leave over the summer including two weeks in August due to back trouble. Meanwhile, Johnson said uncertainty about whether she’ll keep her job made it hard to fill vacancies in the office. Johnson, said that she doesn’t think it’s right that state officials have more say than locals on who’s hired. With Kight gone, Johnson has contracted other lawyers to represent Monroe County’s indigent defendants, which includes the vast majority of those accused. One of those who’s been contracted is former Henry County assistant district attorney Thomas Williams. Acccording to WSB-TV, Williams resigned in June from his Henry County prosecutor’s job after he was found at an Atlanta massage parlor during a raid for suspected sexual activity. Henry County district attorney Jim Wright said Williams was a good prosecutor who did his job well but exercised tremendously bad judgment by being at the massage parlor. The spa advertised itself as an escort service. Meanwhile, Kight said he doesn’t see any reason not to pursue a lawsuit against the office for the way he was treated. Kight said he carried a huge caseload, won over half his cases that went to trial, and developed a reputation among defendants so that jail inmates usually requested that he represent them. Kight is married to Karen Sullivan Kight, the sister of Forsyth attorney Malcolm Sullivan and a judge for the Catholic Church. Kight said he’s most proud when people tell him he reminds them of his late father in law, an attorney who helped a lot of people in tough circumstances.

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