By Timothy Mclaughlin
(Reuters) - Missouri's system for providing lawyers to represent poor people accused of crimes is so under-funded that defendants wait months for an attorney and plead guilty in cases they could easily have won, a lawsuit filed Thursday said.
The suit by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other organizations is the latest development in the state's long-running feud over how much to spend on legal representation for indigent defendants that has pitted the public defender's office against multiple governors.
"I've done everything short of setting myself on fire to draw attention to the situation that the state has put us in," Michael Barrett, director at the Missouri State Public Defender's Office and himself a defendant in the suit, said by email.
Last year, Barrett tried to emphasize the severity of the problem by appointing the state's then-governor, attorney Jay Nixon, as a defense lawyer for a poor defendant.
In testimony before the state legislature in February, Barrett said that the public defender's office would need an additional 333 lawyers to provide even basic representation. That would nearly double the 349 currently on the staff, according to the St. Louis Post Dispatch newspaper.
In the lawsuit filed in state court in the state capital, Jefferson City, the ACLU said state's indigent defense budget is grossly inadequate, with an average of just $356 spent per case. That ranks Missouri 49th out of 50 states in per capita indigent defense funding.
People accused of crimes can wait months, often in jail, for representation, the complaint said. In 97 percent of cases public defenders are forced to devote fewer than the minimum hours recommended by the American Bar Association, the civil rights legal organization said.
The suit does not seek monetary damages, but is asking the court to order changes in the state's public defender system.
Shondell Church, one of five plaintiffs in the case, pleaded guilty in a plea deal - even though a public defender told him he could win his case - because he would have been forced to spend six months in jail simply waiting for an available lawyer, the suit said.
"When the state’s public defense is short-changed, the entire criminal justice system falters," ACLU attorney Jason Williamson said in a statement.
The organization is seeking class action status for the suit.
A spokesman for Governor Eric Greitens, also named in the suit, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
(Reporting by Timothy Mclaughlin in Chicago; Editing by Sharon Bernstein and Dan Grebler)