Ga. top court makes key ruling on defendants’ rights in local case

Published: Mar. 15, 2023 at 4:21 PM EDT
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ATLANTA (WRDW/WAGT) - Ruling in a Burke County case, the Georgia Supreme Court said Wednesday that a defendant can make filings on their own behalf even if they’re represented by an attorney.

Such filings have often been ignored in the past, but the justices now say courts have the discretion to recognize them.

“Although a defendant does not have a constitutional or statutory right to represent himself while he is also represented by counsel, nothing in our Constitution or Code prohibits such ‘hybrid representation,’ either,” Justice Andrew A. Pinson wrote in the unanimous opinion.

The underlying case involves Garry Deyon Johnson, who was convicted of malice murder and robbery in the killing of Irene Shields.

A Burke County trial court sentenced Johnson in November 2000 to serve life in prison without possibility of parole plus a consecutive 20-year term.

After Johnson was convicted and sentenced, his lead trial counsel withdrew, although his other appointed attorney stayed with him.

Johnson then filed an “extraordinary” motion on his own behalf asking for a new trial, but the trial court never ruled on it.

In December 2017, Johnson’s current appellate counsel entered an appearance in his case, and the trial court named a special master to reconstruct Johnson’s case file. A year later, the trial court allowed Johnson to file an “out-of-time” motion for a new trial, but eventually denied the motion.

Johnson appealed to the Supreme Court, which initially dismissed his case, relying in part on past case law in which the court had concluded that a filing made by a defendant who was represented by counsel was legally null.

But upon reconsideration, the court reinstated Johnson’s appeal.

On Wednesday, the court affirmed that while the Georgia Constitution and state laws don’t contain a right to hybrid representation, there’s no rule against it.

“Some of our decisions have recognized this distinction,” Pinson wrote. “Soon after we first recognized that the right to hybrid representation had been eliminated from the current Georgia Constitution, we made clear that this change did not affect trial counsel’s discretion to allow hybrid representation.”

But in later cases, the court began imposing an “absolute rule” that invalidated filings on their own behalf by defendants who had lawyers.

This absolute rule “has no basis in either Constitution or statute, and it is virtually unreasoned, in conflict with our own decisions, and potentially destructive of the appeal rights of criminal defendants,” Pinson wrote.

Even though courts ordinarily adhere to previous decisions, this principle “does not require us to perpetuate a legal rule that is so obviously and harmfully wrong, and so we overrule our past decisions.”

The opinion also says recognition of filings by counseled defendants is within the court’s “sole discretion,” and that the justices expect such filings to be “the exception and not the rule.”

The court didn’t decide the merits of Johnson’s appeal but instead said the Burke County court must decide whether to recognize and rule on post-conviction motions Johnson filed on his own behalf.