In a case that ought to become a conservative rallying cry in the 1992 election campaign, the five commissioners in tiny Lincoln County, Georgia, went to jail last fall for what they saw as protecting the taxpayers’ money. In dignified single file, broken only by an occasional hug from a supporter and the “Bless You, Commissioners” shouts of three hundred constituents, they were led away at high noon last October 30 in a symbolic action reminiscent of past tax and civil rights revolts. Superior Court Judge Pumell Davis found them in contempt for failing to pay a court-appointed attorney’s $6,000 tab; a bill that under Georgia’s Indigent Defense Program could not be contested.

That was the specific legal issue played out in this timber and livestock community of 7,400 people on the banks of Lake Thurmond. But when balanced against conservative attacks on attorneys and judicial activism, this becomes an issue with national implications. How far should a county go to protect the rights of a defendant? Should it raise taxes twice to ensure a fair trial for someone who has already admitted guilt? And should it then tum around and pay, without scrutiny, the bill of the attorney whose work accounted for 5 percent of the county’s 1990 budget? The commissioners’ contempt of court is, in effect, a case about the dollar cost of civil liberty.

It began in July 1988 when Johnny Dee Jones, now 26, crawled through an unlocked drainage gate at the McCormick Correctional Institute, just across the South Carolina border from Lincoln County, to escape his 22-year sentence for armed robbery. Four hours later the alarm went out to law enforcement officials. It was too late. Jones was across the state line and two days later stabbed Randall Garvin Reeves and his stepdaughter, Leigh Drew, on the porch of their Lincolnton home. Reeves was dead on arrival at a Washington, Georgia, hospital and, after threatening Mrs. Reeves and her son, Jones.made his escape driving their car. Police caught him a few days later, and in July 1990, amid a flurry of publicity, he went to trial.

To cover the cost of the trial the county raised taxes some $90,000. It wasn’t enough. The capital murder trial and sentencing cost in excess of $100,000—the largest single line item in the county’s 1990 budget. Jones’s attorney, Jimmy Plunkett, appealed his death sentence and on September 23, 1991, the Georgia Supreme Court, citing pretrial publicity, unanimously overturned the conviction. The appellate court said 38 of the 42 members of the jury panel had prior knowledge of the case and that an expensive change of venue should have been granted. Though jurors had sworn under oath that they could put aside any media coverage, as prescribed under previous change of venue decisions, the high court made pretrial publicity the issue, not the jurors’ ability to ignore it. “Not once did anyone from the Supreme Court contact me to ask what evidence was considered in the conviction,” juror Sheila Wilkes complained in a letter to the Lincoln Journal. “We gave Jones the benefit of every doubt. We refused to even consider two eyewitness accounts of the murder because they presented too many discrepancies when compared to other evidence presented in the case.” The other evidence included Jones’s two admissions to the murder, a taped confession, his fingerprints, some of them bloody, on both the Reeves’ house and car, and his use of the murder to taunt another man he later shot.

“I think it’s about time that someone stood up to the Georgia Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court on the verdicts they’re overturning, and I’m prepared to represent the people of Lincoln County in flatly telling the Supreme Court that if they want to retry this man, then they can pay the bill,” County Commission Chairman Walker T. Norman told reporters at the time of the reversal. Norman and the other commissioners became even more enraged when they learned that state law demanded they pay Plunkett for 156 billing hours on the successful appeal. Judge Davis—refusing to allow them to see the bill, also as required by law—gave them until October 30 to hand over $6,000. This they did not do, and at two minutes until noon the day before Halloween, the county sheriff ran well-wishers and reporters out of Norman’s office to read the commissioners “their last rites,” as a bystander put it. “I think . . . the grass roots people are voicing their opinion,” Norman said preceding his arrest. “We feel that something has got to be done if we’re going to have a judicial system that’s responsive to the people.”

Prior to being fingerprinted, the commissioners discussed a second tax hike, at least $125,000 this time, to re-try Jones. They also filed a $2 million suit against the South Carolina Department of Corrections for allowing Jones to escape. Finally, they went to the financially strapped state legislature in hopes of getting Georgia to pick up the tab for a new trial. This, however, is an unlikely scenario, since the counties of Dawson and Seminole have suffered much the same legal-financial problem, and Georgia is battling an ongoing budget crisis by laying off state employees.

There apparently has been no talk of saving tax money by dropping the capital murder charges against Jones. However, this option is likely to be considered by other jurisdictions in similar situations in the future because the country suffers from a nationwide legal gridlock. In federal courts today, one in ten civil cases has been on file in excess of three years, and eighty thousand cases are more than a year old. In New York City, a misdemeanor case, after arraignment, takes almost two hundred days before a trial verdict is reached, and in Philadelphia, with 13,000 pending felony charges, sheriff’s deputies quit serving papers in civil suits for lack of time. More and more the public blames these kinds of problems on lawyers. Echoing Vice-President Quayle, many Americans say that 770,000 attorneys, 70 percent of the world’s total, are simply too many and demand a reduction. In the Lincoln County case, however, Jones’s attorney was required by law to file an appeal. It was not his choice. Furthermore, even if Jones is convicted again in a second, more expensive trial, another state-mandated appeal will be filed. According to the Georgia Department of Corrections, the typical deathrow inmate files at least four costly legal actions. Only one inmate in ten actually goes to the electric chair, after an average 11 years of being housed at $25,557 per year, $10,000 more than other prisoners.

The repercussions of the Lincoln commissioners’ one-day jail stay are being felt throughout the state’s legal circuit. Though the Supreme Court reheard Jones’s appeal and still voted for reversal—this time in a 4-3 vote—Chief Justice Harold G. Clarke is presently urging the state to cover more of the cost of indigent defense. Since almost one-quarter of Georgia’s death penalty convictions are overturned, many due to “ineffective counsel,” there are calls for a state public defender’s office to handle death penalty cases. In neighboring Columbia County, officials not only plan to move the criminal trial of Richard Daniel Starrett some two hundred miles, they also were compelled to change the venue on a civil action concerning Starrett’s mental competency, thereby potentially tripling case expenses. And in Richmond County, the district attorney opted to plea bargain away the death penalty in a case where a teenager was murdered over a football jersey, at least partially to escape the massive trial cost. The district attorney had promised repeatedly that Carnel Clyde Frasure would pay the ultimate price for allegedly shooting a 16-year-old child over a Miami Hurricanes jersey. Frasure—a “cold-blooded, execution-style” killer, according to the district attorney—is now eligible for parole before the turn of the century.