The Georgia Supreme Court has heard oral argument of the issue of whether Georgia’s Indigent Defense Act allows for public funding for expert witnesses when a defendant is represented by a private attorney.
In October 2005, high school teacher Tara Faye Grinstead was reported missing. Her disappearance remained a mystery until 2017, when Bo Dukes reported that his friend Ryan Alexander Duke had confessed to the murder. Dukes told the authorities that Duke told him that he had broken into Grinstead’s home to rob her, but that he ended up strangling her to death. Dukes claimed that he helped Duke to transport Grinstead’s body and assisted him in burning it.
On February 22, 2017, Duke confessed to authorities that he was solely responsible for Grinstead’s murder. Duke was indicted for malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, burglary, and concealing a death in connection with Grinstead’s death.
Expert Witness Funding Issue
Duke was initially represented by the Tifton Judicial Circuit Public Defender. In 2018, private attorneys offered to take on his case pro bono. Duke’s attorneys filed a pretrial motion requesting state funding to pay for an investigator and defense expert witnesses. The trial court denied the motion. It stated, while Duke “has a constitutional right to be represented by private, pro bono counsel if he so chooses, he is not simultaneously constitutionally entitled to experts and investigators funded by the State.” Duke’s attorneys appealed.
The Georgia Supreme Court granted an appeal to answer the question, “Did the trial court err in holding that an indigent defendant in a criminal case who is represented by private, pro bono counsel does not have a constitutional right or a statutory right under the Indigent Defense Act…to state-funded experts and investigators?”
The Georgia Supreme Court heard oral argument on the issue on January 12, 2021.
Duke’s attorneys argued that he is entitled to receive funding under the United States Constitution, the Georgia Constitution, and the Indigent Defense Act in order to protect his Sixth Amendment rights to counsel and a fair trial. His attorneys pointed out that a trial court judge made a specific finding that Duke is indigent and that his need for experts in this case was “compelling.” The attorneys argued that if the trial court’s ruling is allowed to stand, indigent defendants will be forced to choose between having an attorney with sufficient time, knowledge and skill to defend the case or work with a potentially overworked attorney with little time to devote to the case to have the benefit of working with experts.
The State argued that indigent defendants do not have a constitutional or statutory right under the Indigent Defense Act to state-funding investigators or experts. The State also claimed that Duke does not even qualify as indigent because of his evidence of “other resources,” such as his ability to pay for private counsel. The State argued that under the Indigent Defense Act, an indigent who opts out of public representation also opts out of public defense resources.
The Georgia Supreme Court took the matter under advisement. The court typically makes its ruling on cases within six months of oral argument. After its ruling, Duke’s case will be sent back to Irwin County court to schedule a new date for trial.