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County Commissioners Jailed for Refusing to Pay Legal Bill

October 31, 1991 GMT

LINCOLNTON, Ga. (AP) _ Five Lincoln County commissioners ended a 24-hour jail stint today after they agreed to pay an indigent murder defendant’s legal fees.

″They turned over a check to the sheriff,″ said county attorney Ben Ross. ″They said they’re glad to be out. They’re all going somewhere to eat lunch.″

The entire county commission went to jail Wednesday in defiance of a judge’s order requiring the county to pay $6,004 in legal fees for Johnny Dee Jones.

The Georgia Supreme Court had overturned a death sentence for Jones for a 1988 murder. The court cited excessive pretrial publicity and ordered a new trial - at Lincoln County’s expense.

″We were hoping maybe a compromise could be reached (to lower the fees), but it appears there’s no middle ground,″ Ross said today, after meeting with the commissioners and then the judge.

The five commissioners surrendered at noon Wednesday and walked the 50 feet from Commission Chairman Walker Norman’s office to the jail.

About 400 taxpayers staged a rally at the jail to show their support.

The commissioners were cited for contempt of court for refusing to pay $6,004 to a court-appointed attorney for Jones.

Superior Court Judge Purnell Davis had set the Wednesday noon deadline for the commissioners to pay up. He ordered that they remain behind bars until they pay the bill. The commission had asked that the bill be reduced.

Norman estimated the case already has cost this rural eastern Georgia county about $100,000. The county, with a population of less than 7,500, has a budget of $2.2 million.

Jones, a fugitive from a nearby McCormick, S.C., prison, was sentenced to die for committing a murder in 1988 a few days after escaping.

Lincoln County raised taxes to cover the costs of the 1990 trial and plans to raise them again in 1992 to pay for the retrial, Norman said.

The county sued the state of South Carolina and the architects of the McCormick prison for negligence in an attempt to recover some of its money.

But the commission members put their foot down when defense attorney Jim Plunkett hit them with his bill for Jones’ appeal.

Residents applauded the commissioners. They shook their hands, patted them on the back and shouted their names as they headed to jail.

″We’re going to forgive them everything they’ve done after doing this,″ said hardware store owner Bill Buford.

State Rep. Bobby Harris said he would sponsor a bill proposing the state pay for cases in which the courts overrule a verdict and order a retrial.

The state pays only about 5 percent of indigents’ court fees, said Eric Kocher of the Georgia Indigent Defense Council. The state’s 100 counties must share the $1.3 million the Legislature budgeted for indigent defense.

″The Lincoln County situation exemplifies what’s going on,″ said Jerry Griffin, executive director of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.

″We’ve been pushing for several years for the state to assume its responsibility in providing indigent defense, because the burden has been shifted to local governments.″