Lawsuit accuses state of failing in public defender services

COLUMBIA - A lawsuit filed on Wednesday accuses the state of Missouri of failing to "provide poor people accused of crimes with adequate representation, resulting in the actual and constructive denial of counsel for indigent defendants across the state."

The lawsuit, filed by attorneys with ACLU of Missouri and the Chicago-based MacArthur Justice Center, includes nine plaintiffs. It names as defendants the State of Missouri, Attorney General Eric Schmitt, Missouri Public Defender System Director Mary Fox and several judges.

It claims the judges and others have put poor defendants on waiting lists for legal help, "in an effort to shield public defenders from violating their ethical duties by taking on too many cases." This action, the lawsuit says, "violates the right to counsel, due process, and equal rights and opportunity guaranteed to all criminal defendants."

The plaintiffs in the case include people who are facing various legal situations and claim they haven't been given access to an attorney.

According to the lawsuit, "indigent defendants who have been placed on a waiting list typically receive a form letter from the local MSPD office indicating that they are eligible for public defender services, but have been placed on a waiting list, pending the availability of an attorney with the capacity to provide them with competent representation."

KOMU 8 obtained a copy of a letter sent to a Miller County woman recently charged with a crime, in which the public defender's office confirms she qualifies for public defender services. The letter says there are no available attorneys in her area to take the case, however, and as such her case has been put on a waiting list.

The letter goes on to say there is no estimate for how long the woman many be on the waiting list.

According to the lawsuit, there are more than 4,600 defendants on waiting lists across Missouri.

One effect of the waiting list, the lawsuit says, is defendants are often assigned bond without the benefit of advocacy from an attorney. That leads to cases where "defendants placed on waiting lists are often forced to remain in jail simply because they are unable to advocate effectively for release on their own recognizance or a reasonable reduction in their bond amount."

The lawsuit seeks for a declaration that the practice of putting defendants on public defender waiting lists goes against the Missouri Constitution. It also asks the court to stop the practice of putting defendants on waiting lists, and an order to remove all defendants from current waiting lists and assign attorneys to those cases. If appointing attorneys is "impracticable," the lawsuit says the court should "immediately dismiss the charges against all such indigent criminal defendants."

Janet Thompson, a former Missouri public defender, spoke about the difficulties Missouri State Public Defender System is facing.

"You have to balance providing constitutionally effective assistance counsel," said Thompson. "And make sure that people that have committed or alleged to have committed crime are detained in some way or at least charged so they can be prosecuted."

Thompson said to address the current waiting list problem in the public defender system, the legislature needs to make moves.

"There wasn't waste in that system (MSPD)," she said. "In my estimation, I think we need to meet our constitutional obligation and fund the Public Defender System."

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