It’s been about ten years since Maurice Jimmerson;s arrest, and he’s still awaiting trial.
It’s unclear why exactly Jimmerson has languished in jail for so long. Gregory Edwards, the Dougherty County district attorney, told Atlanta News First that some of the delay can be attributed to a 2021 courthouse flood, the COVID-19 pandemic, and a previous judge’s decision to try Jimmerson and his codefendants separately for the 2013 double-murder charge. Two of Jimmerson’s codefendants were tried—and acquitted—in 2017.
These excuses don’t cut it? What about this one.
Things got even worse for Jimmerson in the summer of 2022, when his public defender, Benjamin Harrell, filed several requests to be released from Jimmerson’s case, noting that he needed to travel frequently to obtain medical care for his infant daughter. However, court employees seemingly lost Harrell’s requests and didn’t actually grant his release from the case until April 12 of this year—apparently after local journalists questioned one judge on why she hadn’t approved Harrell’s request.
While Jimmerson was effectively without a lawyer during this period, the Georgia Public Defender Council has insisted that, though Harrell was not providing Jimmerson with any legal help, Jimmerson was, in fact, being properly represented.
Putting aside the lawyer’s duty, ill child or not, This was 2022, Nine years after the arrest and five years after the co-defendants were tried. What happened for all those years?
“A court error, if one took place, does not obviate Mr. Harrell’s responsibilities or representation,” Thomas O’Conner, the Public Defender Council’s communications director said. “In law and in fact, Mr. Harrell was Mr. Jimmerson’s attorney until April 12; assertions to the contrary are deliberately misleading.”
He had a public defender on paper, even if years went by and the defendant never saw him, understood him to have gotten off the case, never went to court and sat in a cell. And this from the Public Defender Council, which tells you a lot about Georgia’s concern for the constitutional rights of its indigent defendants.
One would expect a pre-trial defendant to have court appearance, where he was taken before the judge and either had a lawyer standing next to him or not. One would expect that a judge with a nine-year-old case on his docket would want to get it off his docket and set the case for trial. One would expect that there were enough safeguards in the system that nobody would get lost for a decade and be forgotten. There should be. So what now for Jimmerson?
Things could be looking up for Jimmerson. Last month Atlanta defense attorney Andrew Fleischman began representing Jimmerson pro bono, even filing a motion to have Jimmerson’s case dismissed.
Yes, our Fault Lines colleague, Andrew Fleischman, a former public defender and now a partner at Sessions and Fleschman. Andrew explained that his first reaction upon hearing of Jimerson’s situation was to say, “somebody should do something.” Upon an elbow in the ribs, it occurred to Andrew that he was somebody and he had the ability to do something. And so he did.
Justifying his decision to file the motion, Fleischman cited the 1972 case Barker v. Wingo, in which the Supreme Court ruled that if someone is held in custody too long before trial, the case can be dismissed. Fleischman tells Reason that “it made sense to file the motion” given that Jimmerson has been locked up for 10 years. “And as far as I know,” he says, “that’s the longest anybody’s been held in custody before a trial outside of [Guantanamo Bay].”
While pretrial delay in this case was shocking, speedy trial motions are hard to win, particularly where, as here, the court can shift the responsibility for delay onto the defendant’s lawyer, the seriousness of the crime and lack of prejudice. Still, Andrew had to make the pitch.
“I have this very strong conviction that people should have a trial before they are punished. And it seems like that is like such a minority view,” adds Fleischman. In fact, the Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a speedy trial and the right to an attorney, both of which Jimmerson has been denied. “We should be trying people in a reasonable amount of time, and we should put a reasonable amount of resources toward making that happen. And if we have a system where people have to wait in jail for two or three years before they have a trial, that’s not due process.”
As correct as this is, that’s no assurance that the motion will prevail, meaning that Jimmerson may still for forced to go to trial and Andrew, who took the case pro bono, will have to do everything he can to achieve the same outcome as the co-defendants in 2017. It might not give Jimmerson the decade lost to pretrial detention back, but at least he now has competent counsel who will zealously defend him. And maybe this time, the motion to dismiss will be granted, as it should.