The Georgia Supreme Court warned Monday that Gwinnett County is running out of
time to try a man accused of the execution-style killings of a toddler and his
father over a gambling debt.
The high court declined Khahn Dinh Phan's appeal that his death-penalty case be
thrown out because he has not been brought to trial in nearly 7 years, in part
because of delays caused by the state's financially strained indigent defense
system. But the court warned that Gwinnett County Superior Court needs to
resolve Phan's case or risk that it will be dismissed if the delay becomes more
"We warn the clock is ticking," said the opinion by Chief Justice Carol
Hunstein. Further delays caused by state budget problems could well tip the
scales ... in Phan’s favor.”
Hunstein wrote that the Phan case is an "object lesson in the perils" of
underfunding the state's indigent fund, which has resulted in Phan being in the
Gwinnett County jail since his arrest in March 2005. He is accused of the the
Dec. 29, 2004 shootings of a Vietnamese couple and their 2-year-old son in
their Lilburn home.
Hung Thai, 37, and his son Hugh Thai, both died from bullets to the back of the
head. Hoangoah Ta, the wife and mother, survived but remained in a coma for 7
weeks before returning to Vietnam that February. A Gwinnett police detective
interviewed her by phone and she identified Phan as the shooter.
The Georgia Public Defender Standards Council hired attorneys Bruce Harvey and
Christopher Adams to represent Phan but the lawyers said they were never
properly funded, including not receiving money to hire experts or to travel to
Vietnam to interview the surviving eyewitness. In 2009, the Gwinnett Superior
Court denied Phan’s motion to dismiss his charges due to the state’s failure to
fund his defense against the death penalty and due to the violation of his
right to a speedy trial.
Gwinnett Superior Court Judge Ronnie Batchelor refused and the high court
ordered him to determine if there was a "systematic breakdown" in the public
defender system that undermined Phan's right to a fair trial. Batchelor ordered
the Council’s “in-house” capital defender division to replace Adams and Harvey
to allow the case to go forward.
Harvey and Adams again appealed again, but the justices said Phan could still
receive a fair trial and Batchelor was permitted to replace Adams and Harvey.
Hunstein, however, emphasized the case raised a number of troubling issues.
“We emphasize that our determination that the trial court acted within its
discretion should in no way be construed as an endorsement of the system that
has led us down this tortuous path thus far,” the opinion said. “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.” (source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution