It seems simple enough. A criminal is convicted and given a life or death sentence. There is justice for the victim’s family and the county gets rid of an inmate that was costing taxpayers by sending that person to prison. But inmates that have been tried and convicted in Newton County, and sent to neighboring prisons to serve out their time are still costing taxpayers thousands, thanks to appeals.
What is a criminal appeal?
A criminal appeal is the ability for a defendant to contest their conviction through a formal appeals court. However, the criminal appeal is only to evaluate the procedure and protocol of the hearing, according to www.law.com.
"The criminal appeal process, therefore, is initiated typically by the defendant in a criminal trial who believes that an egregious error, present in their particular trial, prevented them from obtaining an accurate judgment in their case."
Oftentimes defendants will appeal their conviction on the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel – which essentially means they are saying their attorney did not do their job, resulting in a guilty verdict. But an appeal can be filed for any number of reasons, including appealing the decision made on a previous appeal.
It might sound like a joke, but there’s nothing funny about the amount of money appeals cost the county.
What does it cost?
The Clerk of Court’s office handles appeals as they come through. It typically takes her three to four days to process an appeal for those convicted of murder. If that defendant has been sentenced to life, an automatic appeal for a new trial is filed.
The lowest paid employee at the clerk’s office makes roughly $20,000 a year, or $10 an hour. With appeals for murders taking an average of three to four days, that’s around $300 for just one appeal. And typically, there are several appeals filed by those sentenced to serve out the remainder of their life in prison.
A prosecutor from the District Attorney’s Office has to represent the state in appeals that go before local judges. With the average assistant district attorney making around $50,000 a year, that amounts to $35 an hour to work on appeals. And if a public defender is assigned to represent the defendant in any appeals locally, that’s another $35 an hour.
Judges make about $120,000 annually, which amounts to about $60 a hour to listen to and rule on the appeals that come through their courtroom.
According to Newton County Sheriff Ezell Brown, if a prisoner is housed elsewhere in the state, the county is responsible for picking up, transporting and housing that prisoner while they are here. With the farthest prison being below Savannah, Brown said that it could cost upwards of $300 for manpower and $200 for gas, making just the trip cost $500. Housing a prisoner costs $45 a day, if there are no medical issues associated with the prisoner. And Brown stressed that often prisoners are brought to the county before the day of court and taken back the day after, meaning a stay in the county jail would cost about $135.
For some prisoners, they feel they have been unjustly sentenced. For others, they have nothing but time and filing appeals is something to fill that. The News wrote to several prisoners serving life sentences in Georgia. Below, they explain why they chose to file.
Convicted in 1975 on three counts of armed robbery and sentenced to three consecutive life sentences, Armour is serving his time at Central State Prison in Macon. Armour, 58, filed a writ of mandamus to withdraw his guilty plea in 2006, as well as a motion for counsel and a motion for a new trial.
When asked, Armour wrote the following as his reason for filing appeals in the Newton County sentence: "…My lawyer didn’t do anything or say anything to help me in my case. I am going to keep fighting that… I was not advised of my rights. If any one did, I would had most definitely went to trial, particularly since nobody was hurt in this case."
Mazzetti Alexander, 30, was convicted in 2007 for murder and sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, which will require him to serve at least 30 years of his sentence before being eligible. He is currently serving his sentence at Hays State Prison in Trion. He has filed appeals for a new trial and an appeal on the denial of the new trial. In 2012, he filed an extraordinary motion for a new trial.
"I was convicted of malice murder. On the contrary, my actions were a response to defend self from a perceived imminent threat, which appeared life-threatening. However, I am deeply sorry for what happened, and my heart still goes out to the family of the deceased. I hope that they can forgive me for what happened that day. The U.S. Constitution guarantees a criminal defendant the right to a fair trial, and the trial I received was not. Most importantly, any man with children should take the necessary steps to get back to his children."
Joseph Barnes, 44, is serving life without parole at Baldwin State Prison in Hardwick for murder. In his letter to The News, Barnes admitted he "killed a man and took his money." Barnes blamed bad blood between his family and the judge that sentenced him for the severity of his sentence.
"I apologize to the taxpayers for taking up so much of the court’s time and expenses, but I can’t give up. They’ve taken everything else. All I have is hope! …I have no choice but to keep trying – which means more time and expenses for the court. I want this to be over. It’s been 21 years! Can a man ever deserve a second chance at life?"
Barnes added that if he were ever to be released, his plan is to enter the monastery. He has filed appeals at least eight times.
James Brown, 33, was convicted of murder in 1998 and received a life sentence, which he is serving currently at Riverbend Correctional Facility in Milledgeville. He appealed the decision locally and to the Supreme Court. He has also filed at least two other motions.
"A person only has (1) life to live and life in prison is not the way or place to live it. We all make mistakes in life; some of us get caught and some of us don’t."
Brown said another reason for his appeals is to "expose the prejudiced judicial system that Newton County has, and proceeded to accuse the judge of unfair handling of his trial.
"I plan on appealing my case until I get the due justice that I deserve due to the illegal wrong that has been done to me."