I was disappointed to read Randy Salzman’s anti-lawyer diatribe (“Letter From Georgia: The Price of Justice,” May 1992) in your otherwise fine magazine. The sum of $6,000 is a very small amount to pay to insure that a man charged with a homicide receives a fair trial. I am sure that no non-indigent citizen, a person who pays for his defense out of his own pocket, has ever received such a fine bargain.
The right to a fair trial is one of the noblest gifts we possess from our European heritage. To insure the exercise of that gift our Founding Fathers placed the right to a jury trial and to a counsel for defense in the Bill of Rights. In order to insure that right on a practical basis the states provide for either public defenders or the payment of private attorneys. If the lawyer is a private attorney such as Mr. Plunkett, the fee he receives pays not only his stenographer’s fees, but his office overhead, his disability and medical insurance, his taxes, and finally his salary. Nobody gets rich defending the poor.
It is pathetic that Lincoln County, Georgia, is so poor and its officials so stubborn and ignorant. The sum of $6,000, plus whatever else the attorney will receive for his appeal, is small coin for the assurance his work will give us. The defendant could be executed for his crimes. If that should occur, Mr. Plunkett would have proved that Jones received a fair trial, that his execution was not a lynching, and that justice was done.
—John F. McKeown
Mr. Salzman Replies:
Mr. McKeown has misread and misrepresented the facts of the Johnny Dec Jones murder trial. The $6,000 attorney fee that Mr. McKeown believes is “a very small sum to pay to insure that a man charged with a homicide receives a fair trial” was not for Jones’s defense. It was the bill for the filing of Georgia’s mandatory appeal in death penalty convictions. Mr. Jones’s defense fee had been paid the previous year when Lincoln County increased taxes to cover the $125,000 trial.
In the specific sense, Lincoln commissioners protested paying the $6,000 because, under Georgia’s Indigent Defense law, they were not allowed to scrutinize the attorney’s bill. They could take no action to verify that he had actually worked the claimed 156 billing hours on the appeal. In the larger sense, however, the commissioners’ protest should send a warning to courts across the nation. We simply cannot afford to bankrupt jurisdictions over men like Mr. Jones, who three times—once in open court—admitted to cold-blooded murder.
Mr. Jones has since been retried on a change of venue and again been convicted. However, the jury deadlocked in the punishment phase, and Mr. Jones’s sentence is now life in prison. He will be eligible for parole in 20 years, at age 47. Lincoln County, meanwhile, in spite of a $68,000 influx of state funds, is again facing a tax increase to pay for the second trial.
In old westerns, the hero was the sheriff who stood up to the lynch mob of his fellow citizens. If we fail to learn the lessons of the Johnny Dee Jones case, the hero may well become the sheriff who takes a coffee break.
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