SENATOBIA, MS (abc24.com) - If you're poor, get in legal trouble in Mississippi and need a public defender, you may be out of luck. It's one of a handful of states without a state wide system of public defenders. The result is innocent people end up in prison or spend years in jail waiting to go to trial.
Most taxpayers don't like having to pay legal bills for someone charged with a crime. But what if the person is poor, can't afford a lawyer and innocent. In Mississippi, truth is getting a court appointed lawyer may not help and can even hurt your prospects of staying out of prison.
"They just want to get paid and get a paycheck," said Wesley Devereaux of court appointed lawyers. Devereaux's theft conviction was overturned after the State Court of Appeals found big problems with how his court appointed defense lawyer represented him.
"They have made so many mistakes and constitutional violations, it's very serious," he said.
Truth is it happens more than you think. A recent report documents problems with the Mississippi justice system and representation of the poor.
In Mississippi the state doesn't pay for representing poor defendants; counties shoulder the burden.
As a result, poor defendants often don't meet their court appointed lawyers until the day of trial, cases aren't investigated, and the accused sit in jail for years or are pressured into plea deals.
Devereaux said, "If they can't get you to plea bargain to make their job easier, you are going to get the max sentence possible."
Public defender Leslie Lee closely follows the injustices in the Mississippi justice system.
"The judges usually pick their own public defenders and if you work for the judge and if you're the public defender you may not want to make him mad, and so you may not do your job appropriately," she said.
It's the good old boy system at work. If you don't play ball with the judge, you don't get any work.
"If they are friends with the trial judge they keep their jobs," Lee said, "Unfortunately that's the way it is."
Devereaux added, "Basically they want to do it as quickly as possible to get the case cleared to get to the next case, they don't want to spend too much time defending."
"Most of the time you got the right guy but it's the ones that fall through the cracks we have to protect," said Lee.
The solution, according to Lee, is a state public defender system. Eliminating the poorly organized patchwork system currently in place could change how the wheels of justice turn in the Magnolia State.
"It makes no sense to keep doing it the way we are doing it anymore," she said, "We're just asking for more and more trouble."