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Dustup in public defender office results in lawsuit

Last year’s upheaval in the Towaliga Circuit public defender office has resulted in a lawsuit filed by a former attorney there. By Bill Rankin Atlanta Journal-Constitution ’‰ A former Middle Georgia public defender has filed a whistleblower lawsuit that alleges breakdowns at all levels of the state’s indigent defense system. The lawsuit, filed Monday, says public defenders in the Towaliga Judicial Circuit were forced to work in unsanitary and dilapidated offices and carry crushing caseloads. The plaintiff, Jim Kight, who worked as a defender in the circuit for eight years, was fired in retaliation last year after he complained about the conditions, the lawsuit says. ‘The government punished Jim for doing exactly what we expect our public defenders to do ‘” for exposing unfairness in our criminal justice system,’ Atlanta lawyer Michael Caplan, one of Kight’s attorneys, said. The state’s whistle-blower law protects public employees who take a stand and expose unlawful conduct by our government, Caplan said. ‘Jim Kight had the courage to do just that ‘” to speak out about severe problems in the public defender office in Forsyth, Georgia ‘” including overworked public defenders, excessive caseloads and a lack of adequate resources.’ Other attorneys representing Kight include Emmet Bondurant, who served as the first chairman of the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, which oversees the statewide system. Travis Sakrison, director of the state defender council, declined to comment on the lawsuit because he said he had yet to receive it. But he praised the current Towaliga office, calling it a model for others. Doug Smith, who heads that office, could not be reached for comment. The Towaliga office handles indigent defense cases in Butts, Lamar and Monroe counties. In 2005, the state’s defender system replaced underfunded and uneven county-run programs. The new system is composed of more than 40 circuit offices with state-and county-funded public defenders. But conditions in the Towaliga office became unbearable last year, the lawsuit says. The building’s roof leaked, its plumbing system routinely backed up, black mold covered the walls, the front-door steps collapsed and two windows fell out of the walls because of rotten wood. Circuit Public Defender Wanda Johnson and Kight staffed the office since it opened. But even though there has been funding for four additional defenders, Johnson failed to fill two of those positions, the suit says. As a result, Kight carried 350 to 400 cases a year for defendants charged in Monroe County and was asked to handle cases in Butts County as well, the suit says. It was Kight’s increasing caseloads, coupled with the unfilled positions, that led him to finally confront Johnson in May 2013, the lawsuit states. When this produced no resolution, Kight took his complaints to the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council in Atlanta. Over the next few months, Kight would be fired and then rehired on two occasions, and also suspended, the suit says. After Johnson was replaced last fall, Kight was fired for a third and final time on Oct. 9 by the circuit’s new head defender, who told Kight he did not have to give him a reason for why he was being terminated, the lawsuit states.

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