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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution AJC.com
By DAVID SIMPSON, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 10/26/07
New trial is given to Monroe resident who acted as his own attorney after budget cuts shuffled his appointed lawyers.
Forsyth Ronald Barnett didn’t deny setting fire to the trailer he had been renovating for his estranged wife, the final episode of a long and troubled marriage.
But he thought some things would work in his favor when he got his day in court.
No one was hurt in the fire; his wife and daughter fled before it was set. And except for one confrontation with his wife years earlier, Barnett had no history of violence.
He wanted a Monroe County jury to consider his claim that the fire was a suicide attempt fueled by a recent interruption in the medication he took for what an expert called his “long-standing history of severe depression.”
Four years later, all of it behind bars, Barnett is still waiting.
Barnett, a 54-year-old former nursing home maintenance worker, puts the blame largely on the lawyers who are supposed to represent indigent defendants.
He finally won a court order for a new trial after, acting as his own attorney, he argued that he pleaded guilty to arson and aggravated assault only because of the failings of his first court-appointed lawyer. That ruling wiped out Barnett’s 20-year prison sentence and set the stage for a trial.
But that was more than a year ago.
Since then, he has tried to get public defenders to press forward with his case, but his defense was handed over to a state office where it was transferred between lawyers because of budget cuts. The budget cuts also are at issue in the long-delayed death penalty trial of accused Fulton County Courthouse killer Brian Nichols.
Stephen Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights, said the delays in Barnett’s case show how money influences the quality of defense in Georgia.
“Undoubtedly, a person who could afford to retain a lawyer would not have these problems,” Bright said.
That is a major theme in a letter-writing campaign Barnett has conducted from his Monroe County jail cell, sending voluminous handwritten arguments studded with legal citations to judges, lawyers and the news media.
“I’m … taking on the big guns with a cap pistol,” he wrote The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
A state agency, the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, took over the responsibility for defending most of Georgia’s poor criminal suspects in 2005 the year after Barnett’s original guilty plea.
After Barnett won his appeal in June 2006, he was assigned a lawyer from the new agency. Within months, he was complaining in writing of having little contact with his lawyer.
His Griffin-based state lawyer did arrange a psychiatric evaluation, but then she sent him a letter in July 2007 saying she was off the case. She said he would be given a new lawyer because of reshuffling of cases caused by “budgetary cuts within the organization.”
This year, the public defender council eliminated 12 percent of its work force because of budget cuts imposed by the state Legislature.
Last week, the council said it cannot continue paying for Nichols’ defense, which has already topped $1.2 million, and also meet its obligation to provide defense for 77 other capital cases and more than 150,000 other pending criminal indigent cases statewide. The council is projecting a $4.5 million budget shortfall.
The director of the council, Mack Crawford, who resigned from a state legislative seat this summer to take the director’s job, said last week that he did not know whether funding caused the delays in Barnett’s case. But he said he is confident Barnett’s latest lawyer, Janet Hankins, is working hard on the case. Bright, of the Southern Center for Human Rights, said Georgia’s new system for defending indigents “is a major improvement,” but the lack of money leaves public defenders with too little time for each client.
He said Barnett’s victory in getting a new trial through the “habeas corpus” process in which an inmate argues he has been unlawfully incarcerated is “very unusual.” He noted inmates have no right to a lawyer at that point.
“Many other people who may have an equal entitlement to habeas corpus relief will not get it because they don’t have lawyers and just can’t do it themselves,” he said.
Barnett set fire to the trailer on Sept. 7, 2003, after an argument with his wife in which she contended he also choked her. He claims she became violent with him when he put his arms around her in a last-ditch attempt at reconciliation. He says he set the fire in despair after she and their daughter left.
More important, he believes, is what was in his bloodstream at the time. After he lost his nursing home job, he ran out of money and had not been able to refill his antidepressant prescriptions. He had taken Prozac for years to control depression so severe, a doctor testified, it caused him to think of suicide when not treated.
He rounded up enough money to get a new supply of Prozac and Xanax on Sept. 5, two days before the fire. An expert later testified he should have resumed the medications slowly, but apparently he took too many pills.
Barnett believed he was “involuntarily intoxicated” at the time of the fire, a defense allowed by Georgia law. He said he gave his court-appointed lawyer information on Prozac and Xanax withdrawal and the names of 16 character witnesses.
But when the day of his trial arrived June 21, 2004, Barnett learned his lawyer had tried to subpoena just two of the witnesses, and those subpoenas were improperly submitted, according to court records.
“There I was in court with no prepared defense, no witnesses, and going before a jury,” Barnett told the judge who heard his appeal last year. “I was told that I would be tried and sentenced that day.”
Seeing no hope of winning, he hoped for leniency and pleaded guilty but mentally ill to arson and aggravated assault. It was to be a “blind plea” with no recommended sentence from the prosecution. But then an assistant district attorney urged the judge to sentence Barnett to at least 15 years.
The judge imposed the 20-year sentence.
In prison, Barnett read up on Georgia law and learned that he could have withdrawn his guilty plea after hearing the prosecutor recommend the lengthy prison sentence.
In the appeal hearing in 2006, Barnett’s lawyer admitted he had not known the plea could be withdrawn. The judge threw out Barnett’s plea and sentence.
Barnett was thrilled to be sent back to the jail in Monroe County to prepare for a new trial. But it was not until July 2007 that his new defense lawyer filed a motion to have him released on bond, a motion that is still pending.
In the meantime, another psychiatrist evaluated Barnett and reported that if not for Barnett’s abrupt resumption of Xanax two days before the fire, “the alleged incidents would not have occurred.”
Barnett still worries whether his “involuntary intoxication” defense will be presented to a jury. However, he says he has far greater contact with Hankins, his latest lawyer.
In an e-mail to the AJC, Hankins said she will investigate all possible defenses for Barnett. He now hopes to have his day in court in November.