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Georgia Supreme Court Sides With The Merchant Law Firm in Pro Bono Murder Case

Majority ruling finds defendants with pro bono counsel may have a constitutional right to state-funded experts.

When our attorneys at The Merchant Law Firm took on a pro bono case, they were disappointed to find that the state of Georgia would not pay for expert witnesses in their client’s murder trial. Feeling that their client would not get a fair case without them, John and Ashleigh Merchant ultimately brought the issue before the Georgia Supreme Court.

Our firm asked the question:

Does the state have to “fund expert witnesses and other expenses for private attorneys who take on a murder case for free?

According to an 8-1 majority opinion, the answer is yes. Chief Justice Harold Melton explained public defenders can enter into a contract with pro bono lawyers, who in effect become public defenders when they take on the case. Another justice specified:

Duke [the defendant] may very well have a constitutional right to state funded experts.”

Safeguarding Clients’ Rights

To Ashleigh Merchant, the Supreme Court’s decision is extremely important, especially in the face of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and related economic losses. The decision removes obstacles for pro bono attorneys and may encourage more high-profile defense attorneys to work for free.

We are thrilled with today’s opinion and pleased that our Supreme Court has safeguarded an indigent defendant’s right to have services to use in his defense much like the State has…We look forward to working with the Circuit Public Defender or the Georgia Public Defender Council to make sure that Mr. Duke is afforded a fair trial.”

With expert witnesses in DNA, false confessions, and psychology, The Merchant Law Firm can ensure our client gets a fair trial. Merchant also recognizes the Supreme Court ruling goes further than Mr. Duke’s case and may help many defendants who are facing economic difficulties:

Over the past year, we have seen more and more criminal defendants become indigent due to changes in circumstances and are happy that his decision will help those defendants receive a fair trial and also enable lawyers to continue to work on cases in a pro bono capacity.”

How Experts Will Help

Our client, Mr. Ryan Duke, was charged with murder and made a false confession under the influence of drugs. Agents from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation allegedly found a latex glove with our client’s DNA and the DNA of the victim. Nevertheless, our client was asleep at home when the victim disappeared.

Expert witnesses can confirm that our client’s confession was false and help contextualize the DNA on the latex glove. Although the Tifton Judicial Circuit denied our request for funding twice, the Supreme Court ruling will help our client afford the expertise he needs in his defense.

It’s amazing news for Ryan,” Merchant explains, “We definitely take it as a good sign. It’s what we wanted.”

The Merchant Law Firm plans to start working on an arrangement for funding as soon as possible and complete Duke’s trial, which has been on hold for nearly 2 years due to the recently resolved legal dispute and the COVID-19 pandemic.

We are always pleased to seek justice for our clients — no matter what it takes.

If you have been accused of murder or any other crime, please call us at (404) 828-0969 or send us a message online to discuss your case and schedule a free consultation.