ATLANTA — The Georgia Supreme Court refused to dismiss murder charges against an accused killer who claimed his right to a speedy trial was violated because he has spent nearly seven years awaiting a trial. But the opinion released Monday said the case underscores the dangers of underfunding the criminal justice system.
The unanimous ruling found that both the government and Khahn Dinh Phan share the blame for the delays in his trial for the killings of a Vietnamese man and his 2-year-old son in 2004. He was arrested in March 2005 and the setbacks in his case have made it a focal point in the funding debate over the state's oft-maligned public defender system.
In Monday's opinion, Chief Justice Carol Hunstein called the case an "object lesson in the perils of such underfunding" and used the decision to urge Georgia legislators to address the consequences of a financially-strained public defender system.
"The fact that the dismissal of murder charges has had to be legitimately considered for reasons so far removed from the accused's guilt or innocence underscores the stakes involved," she wrote. "We can only hope that those within the branches of government empowered to remedy these institutional problems will make it a priority to do so."
She made clear that the opinion should not be seen as endorsement of the "system that has led us down this tortuous path thus far" and warned that further delays caused by state budget problems or policy decisions could tip the scales of the case in Phan's favor.
Phan is accused of the December 2004 execution-style slayings of 37-year-old Hung Thai and his 2-year-old son in their Lilburn homes. The victim's wife, Hoangoah Ta, survived the shooting and returned to Vietnam, later telling investigators that Phan broke into their home and shot the family over a gambling debt.
The public defender system hired Bruce Harvey and Christopher Adams to represent Phan, but the two attorneys soon argued they weren't being properly paid by the state-funded system, which had been wracked by budget cuts and lagging legislative support from skeptical lawmakers.
His attorneys argued Phan was the victim of a "systemic breakdown" because of the state's chronic underfunding of defense of death penalty cases, while prosecutors blamed defense attorneys for the repeated delays.
A divided Georgia Supreme Court in 2010 ordered a Gwinnett County judge to analyze the speedy trial complaint, and that judge ordered that Adams and Harvey be removed from the case and replaced by attorneys from the state-funded capital defender system. His attorneys then appealed, leading to Monday's decision.
The 22-page opinion upheld the judge's decision to deny the speedy trial appeal and appoint new defense attorneys. But it warned the "clock is still ticking" as Phan continues to wait in jail for his trial.
"The interests of no one — neither prosecutors nor defendants, victims nor taxpayers — are served by the uncertainty and delay attending to a chronically underfunded indigent defense system," Hunstein wrote in the opinion.