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Judge says waiting list for clients of Missouri public defenders is unconstitutional

Judge says waiting list for clients of Missouri public defenders is unconstitutional

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A judge on Thursday said it was unconstitutional for Missouri to fail to provide lawyers for criminal defendants who can't afford them, leaving them on waiting lists for months or years.

The waiting lists started in 2017, when overloaded public defenders couldn't take on any more clients. By November 2019, there were more than 5,800 felony defendants on the lists with cases pending in 29 counties, including in St. Charles County.

Nearly 600 people had been on the list for more than a year, and 1,546 had been waiting for at least six months. Some languished in jail, Circuit Judge William E. Hickle's ruling says, including Travis Herbert, who waited 147 days, and Dakota Wilcox, who waited more than five months. 

Delays of days or weeks might be acceptable, Hickle wrote, but not months or years.

The lack of a lawyer harmed defendants at "critical stages" like bond hearings but also by delaying the defendant's ability to prepare a defense and investigate the case, he said.

Missouri officials, including the Missouri Public Defender Commission and Mary Fox, head public defender, got Hickle to delay his ruling so they could have more time to hire lawyers and deal with the backlog.

The commission said there are about 3,000 fewer people on the list than when the lawsuit was filed last February, and that the rest of the backlog could be eliminated if the legislature provides money to hire 12 new lawyers for areas with waiting lists.

Hickle set a status conference for July 1, and said he expected monthly updates on the waiting list and the prospects of more state funding.

The ACLU, as well as the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center and the Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe law firm, filed the suit after years of fights over funding for the system.

“Across the country states and municipalities failing to provide adequate resources to public defense systems have created an epidemic where the most vulnerable among us lack adequate legal representation to defend themselves against charges levied by the state," said Jason Williamson, deputy director of the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, in a statement Friday announcing the decision. "Missouri’s waiting lists are some of the most egregious examples of this and the court's decision today highlights the unconstitutionality of the practice.”

A St. Louis County list set up in January 2020 applied only to those who were facing low-level felonies and wouldn't be held in jail. 

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