ATLANTA — An accused killer has spent more than six years in jail awaiting a trial, his case becoming a flashpoint for the state's troubled public defender system. On Monday, the Georgia Supreme Court heard arguments over whether the system broke down or the defense attorneys simply used delay tactics.
Khahn Dinh Phan has been awaiting trial since March 2005 on charges of killing a Vietnamese man and his 2-year-old son. His attorneys, Christopher Adams and Bruce Harvey, asked the judges to dismiss the charges, arguing that he has not had a speedy trial. Prosecutors blamed the lawyers for the repeated delays.
"All of the delays are attributed not to the defendant but to the defendant's counsel," said Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter.
The court isn't expected to rule for weeks, but several of the justices indicated they were upset by the slow pace of the case. Chief Justice Carole Hunstein pointedly asked Adams several times when the case would go to trial, and seemed frustrated when told it would take at least a year.
Phan was accused of the 2004 killings of 37-year-old Hung Thai and his 2-year-old son Hugh in what prosecutors say was a dispute over a gambling debt. Prosecutors announced they would pursue the death penalty soon after his March 2005 arrest.
The case became a focal point in the funding debate for the public defender system when his attorneys said they weren't properly paid.
A Gwinnett County judge denied Phan's motion to dismiss his trial in 2009, but a divided Georgia Supreme Court threw out the ruling and instructed the lower court to determine if a speedy trial violation had occurred. That judge found that Phan's rights had not been violated, and said his attorneys should be replaced by state lawyers.
The attorneys again brought the case to the Georgia Supreme Court, arguing that Harvey was never compensated for his time and that Adams only got partial payments. They also contended the state denied them funding to hire expert witnesses and money to travel to Vietnam to gather facts about their client and interview the sole eyewitness to the shooting.
"It's like going to a homicide scene," said Adams. "You have to go there. You have to be on the ground."
Lisa Jones, an assistant district attorney, disagreed.
She said Harvey was never paid because he didn't have a contract with state, and that the defense team was granted a $40,000 for expert witnesses and other defense resources. The delays, she said, were brought by attorneys who were busy with vacations and speaking engagements.
"It flew in the face of what this court ordered us to do — to move this case forward," she said.