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Friday, June 14, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Indiana’s Overworked Public Defenders Assailed

INDIANAPOLIS (CN) - Accused felons in Indiana have filed a class action complaining that the system of overworking public defenders tramples their right to counsel.

Filed Thursday by lead plaintiff Kenneth Alford, the class action takes aim at four judges, seven public defenders and the commissioners of Johnson County.

Claiming that the defendants have failed to ensure that accused criminals are receiving proper defense, Alford contends that the attorney caseloads exceed the standards set by the Indiana Public Defender Commission.

Alford and six co-plaintiffs, all of whom have cases pending in Johnson County's circuit and superior courts, filed their suit in Marion County.

"Since every judge in the Johnson County Superior and Circuit Court system is a defendant in this lawsuit venue in Johnson County is not appropriate," the complaint states under a section regarding jurisdiction.

The class notes that one defendant, public defender John Wilson, was assigned 176 felony cases in 2014, while maintaining his private practice in Greenwood. The case load exceeds the recommended amount of 120 felony cases for full-time or 60 cases for a part-time public defender lacking adequate support staff. For public defenders with sufficient support staff, the guidelines recommend 150 and 75 felony cases for full-time and part-time, respectively.

Wilson was assigned to represent plaintiff Wardell Strong when the latter was charged with a felony this past June. Though Strong says he met Wilson at his initial hearing, he claims their communications since then has amounted to one phone call.

Insisting that he is innocent of the charges against him, Strong wrote the attorney for discovery and a suppression hearing. He says Wilson tried to withdraw but the court ordered him reinstated on Oct. 1.

Wilson has done nothing to provide a defense in the last week, has not followed up on the leads Strong provided, won't respond to his letters and has not requested a bond-reduction hearing, according to the complaint.

Strong and the other plaintiffs blame their sparse contact with their public defenders to the high caseloads counsel face. In some cases, this pressure makes the attorneys force their clients into accepting plea deals, even if the accused maintained their innocence, according to the complaint.

"The current public defender system employed in Johnson County does not meet the basic standards of quality indigent criminal defense that have been required for over 150 years by the Indiana Supreme Court," the complaint says.

Another of the plaintiffs, Terry Hasket, says he was accused of a felony in July and was assigned defendant Michael Bohn as his attorney. The complaint alleges that Bohn spoke to Hasket once on the telephone, and visited him only a single time to discuss the case. Hasket also claims that he felt pressure to accept a plea deal, and that Bohn ignored his request for a speedy trial.

The lack of communication caused the class to be deprived of basic legal services like expert witnesses, according to the complaint. The plaintiffs say the system provides indigent detainees with public defenders who are not properly prepared for trial.

In addition to class-action status, the plaintiffs seek injunctions that require the county to provide constitutionally required legal defense, and for the creation of the public defender services that are not under the court's supervision of financial control.

As to the second request, the plaintiffs note that public defenders in Johnson County are selected and contracted with a specific judge, a practice that the lawsuit claims compromises the independence of the defenders.

The class is represented by Jonathan Little of Saeed & Little and Michael Sutherlin.

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