An Unlikely Verdict
It was the kind of case that made me wince. Deep Eastern Kentucky. Two outsiders from the city involved in drug trafficking, murder and robbery. African American defendant, white witnesses. Years ago, the chances for an unjust would have been high.
The case arose in Letcher County, Kentucky. Letcher County is an Appalachian county that is losing population as its mining industry declines, down over 1700 in the last 12 years. It has a poverty rate of over 27|PERCENT|, compared to Kentucky’s 16.9|PERCENT|. Only 10|PERCENT| of the population has a BA, one-half Kentucky’s average. And significantly, while 8.1|PERCENT| of Kentucky is African-American, Letcher County is all white–.5|PERCENT| African-American and .7|PERCENT| Hispanic or Latino.
Meet the defendant, Alfred (“New York”) White, from Jonesboro, Georgia. He is 46 and a convicted felon. He was charged with the murder of Walter Johnson in March of 2011.
White was charged with killing his fellow drug dealer, Walter Johnson, of Atlanta.
Two persons were living with Johnson and were allegedly eye-witnesses to the murder. They pled guilty to robbery and facilitation to murder in return for testimony against White.
There were two other witnesses against White.
Richard Counts and Will Collins, public defenders in the Hazard, Kentucky Public Defender’s Office, defended White in what began as a capital trial until notice was withdrawn. Here they are during trial.
Kentucky is a full-time public defender system with salaried lawyers handling 95|PERCENT| of the cases. The office in Hazard was first opened as a result of an LEAA Grant obtained by then Public Advocate Jack Farley in the late 1970s. Kentucky was experimenting with a full-time delivery system in Appalachian Kentucky. For 13 years, I ran a full-time office in Richmond which covered 2 Bluegrass and 2 Appalachian Counties. When I became Public Advocate in 1996, my primary goal was to extend the full-time system from 47 counties to all 120 counties. That goal was achieved in in 2005 when all 120 counties were covered by one of 30 full time offices. Under the leadership of Ed Monahan, the current several additional offices have been opened in the last 5 years. His goal is to have the same number of public defender’s offices as there are offices of the Commonwealth’s Attorney (57).
Will Collins is the directing attorney in Hazard. Prior to the opening of the office, most counties in Kentucky, including Letcher County, delivered public defender services using an assigned counsel system. That system was uneven, with private lawyers who were unsupervised being appointed on a rotating basis by the trial judge. The full-time system, on the other hand, features small public defender offices located in population centers with anywhere from 4-10 lawyers, support staff, an investigator, and sometimes a social worker. All of the public defenders are required to undergo intensive training. Supervision of the lawyers is a premium.
Which brings us back to that trial. On October 9, White was acquitted. Roger Gibbs is the regional manager overseeing the Hazard Office as well as five or six other offices. His synopsis of the case: “Alfred White is an African American from Georgia who came with another African American to Letcher County purportedly to sell drugs. At some point his associate was shot and killed. The two people charged with Alfred pled guilty to Robbing his associate and to Tampering with Evidence. Alfred maintained his innocence from the beginning. At one point the Commonwealth Attorney gave Notice to seek the Death Penalty. He later dropped that to aggravated penalties excluding death. During trial the aggravators were dropped entirely as were the charges of Robbery in the First Degree and Tampering with Evidence. The trial lasted over a week and yesterday the jury acquitted on the Murder Charge. Outstanding work by attorneys Will Collins and Richard Counts and Investigator Larry Caudill.”
Am I saying that systemic change led to the acquittal? Of course not. It took solid lawyering by two committed public defenders to get this result. What I am saying is that 35 years ago these facts would have made me wince. But today, knowing that a system is in place, and that there was a public defender’s office with a directing attorney and regional manager overseeing the system, I now assume that justice will be done when a crime of this nature arises.