Maurice Jimmerson has been behind bars for 10 years but hasn't been convicted of a crime. Due to a series of bureaucratic holdups, Jimmerson has been held in a Dougherty County, Georgia, jail since he was charged with murder in 2013—a crime for which two of his codefendants have already been acquitted. Making matters worse, Jimmerson recently spent eight months without any lawyer at all.
After local journalists uncovered Jimmerson's case in April, an Atlanta criminal defense attorney stepped in to represent Jimmerson pro bono—and he's motioned to dismiss the charges altogether.
It's unclear why exactly Jimmerson has languished in jail for so long. Gregory Edwards, the Dougherty County district attorney, told Atlanta News First that some of the delay can be attributed to a 2021 courthouse flood, the COVID-19 pandemic, and a previous judge's decision to try Jimmerson and his codefendants separately for the 2013 double-murder charge. Two of Jimmerson's codefendants were tried—and acquitted—in 2017.
Things got even worse for Jimmerson in the summer of 2022, when his public defender, Benjamin Harrell, filed several requests to be released from Jimmerson's case, noting that he needed to travel frequently to obtain medical care for his infant daughter. However, court employees seemingly lost Harrell's requests and didn't actually grant his release from the case until April 12 of this year—apparently after local journalists questioned one judge on why she hadn't approved Harrell's request.
While Jimmerson was effectively without a lawyer during this period, the Georgia Public Defender Council has insisted that, though Harrell was not providing Jimmerson with any legal help, Jimmerson was, in fact, being properly represented.
"A court error, if one took place, does not obviate Mr. Harrell's responsibilities or representation," Thomas O'Conner, the Public Defender Council's communications director said. "In law and in fact, Mr. Harrell was Mr. Jimmerson's attorney until April 12; assertions to the contrary are deliberately misleading."
Critics were quick to point out this absurdity. "To claim that Mr. Jimmerson was 'represented' under these circumstances makes a mockery of the right to counsel," Maya Chaudhuri, an attorney for the Southern Center for Human Rights, told Atlanta News First. "This is certainly not the type of 'representation' anyone of means would pay for."
Things could be looking up for Jimmerson. Last month Atlanta defense attorney Andrew Fleischman began representing Jimmerson pro bono, even filing a motion to have Jimmerson's case dismissed.
Justifying his decision to file the motion, Fleischman cited the 1972 case Barker v. Wingo, in which the Supreme Court ruled that if someone is held in custody too long before trial, the case can be dismissed. Fleischman tells Reason that "it made sense to file the motion" given that Jimmerson has been locked up for 10 years. "And as far as I know," he says, "that's the longest anybody's been held in custody before a trial outside of [Guantanamo Bay]."
"I have this very strong conviction that people should have a trial before they are punished. And it seems like that is like such a minority view," adds Fleischman. In fact, the Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a speedy trial and the right to an attorney, both of which Jimmerson has been denied. "We should be trying people in a reasonable amount of time, and we should put a reasonable amount of resources toward making that happen. And if we have a system where people have to wait in jail for two or three years before they have a trial, that's not due process."
According to Atlanta News First, a hearing for the motion to dismiss is set for the end of June. But even if the case against Jimmerson is dismissed, nothing can give him back the decade he's spent behind bars due to administrative incompetence.
"You talk about getting hostages out of other countries like North Korea or Iran," says Fleischman. "And the average time is six years. We talk about those countries having failed puppet justice systems with no expectation of due process. And yet we have Americans in this country waiting 10 years for an opportunity to force the state to prove its case. And that to me is outrageous."