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County Officials Pay Fees to Get Out of Jail, Urge Reforms

November 1, 1991

LINCOLNTON, Ga. (AP) _ Lincoln County’s five commissioners got out of jail Thursday, saying they won a victory even though they ended up paying the court-ordered legal fees of an indigent murder defendant.

It was their refusal to pay the $6,004 in fees that landed them in jail Wednesday.

″Our point was made. We crossed the first hurdle,″ said Commission Chairman Walker Norman.

The commissioners, cited for contempt of court, were arrested at noon Wednesday, the deadline set by Superior Court Judge Purnell Davis for the county to pay the fee. Norman said commissioners chose to spend a night in jail to draw attention to their effort to change Georgia laws on local judicial authority.

The commissioners want local governments to be able to question legal bills presented to them. They also want a law that would require the state to pay for retrials caused by what Norman called errors on the part of the state’s district attorneys or judges.

The Georgia Supreme Court had overturned a death sentence for Johnny Dee Jones for a 1988 murder. The court cited excessive pretrial publicity and ordered a new trial - at Lincoln County’s expense.

″If they allow something to go before that court that shouldn’t, or that is overruled because of pretrial publicity, that is an error by the judge or the DA and the state should foot the bill for the retrial,″ Norman said.

He estimated Jones’ case already has cost this rural eastern Georgia county about $100,000. The county, with a population of less than 7,500, has a budget of $2.2 million.

Lincoln County raised taxes to cover the costs of Jones’ 1990 trial and plans to raise them again in 1992 to pay for the retrial, Norman said.

Hundreds of sympathetic residents gathered to watch the commissioners’ arrest Wednesday, shaking their hands and congratulating them.

Dean Flanigan sent each commissioner a Halloween balloon that read, ″We’re with you.″

″I hope them going to jail will make (legislators) think and wake up to the fact that our smaller counties don’t have that kind of money,″ Flanigan said Thursday.

The commissioners refused to pay Jones’ legal fees because they weren’t allowed to examine and challenge a claim by his attorney, Jimmy Plunkett, that he worked 156 hours on the case.

Plunkett said he billed the county a minimal amount.

″I don’t have any choice but to represent the defendant, and the appeal is mandatory by state law,″ he said. ″To just simply deny payment of counsel in an indigent case is the same as denying him counsel.″

Norman said he and county attorney Ben Ross tried unsuccessfully Wednesday to persuade the judge and Plunkett to reduce the fees.

Lincoln County officials are not alone in facing huge legal bills. In 1987, the governor’s office and the General Assembly granted Seminole County about $625,000 to help pay for the retrial of two men charged in the 1973 murder of six members of a family.

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