When the courts refuse to give you the lawyer you're entitled to, what can you do?
In Mississippi the accused who cannot afford representation can find themselves waiting up to four months to even be indicted, let alone provided with counsel.
The Scott County prisoners are caught in a Catch-22.
The law—based on a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Gideon v. Wainwright—says they are entitled to a lawyer to represent them. But without a lawyer, they have no way of forcing the local courts to take notice. The law also says that people who are arrested must be formally indicted and that they have a right to a speedy trial—but the Mississippi judges in Scott County and the 8th Circuit Court District won’t give the prisoners attorneys to represent them until they are indicted.
And this is where it gets truly strange. In this, and other parts of rural Mississippi, judges only convene grand juries—the group that hands down indictments—three times a year. That means someone can sit in jail for four months before learning whether or not he has been indicted for a crime. If the district attorney isn’t ready to present a case to the grand jury because say, he needs more time to investigate, that person can sit in jail even longer—as Burks and Bassett have.
Why the lag in appointing a public defender? “I can only imagine it’s a fiscal reason,” says Mississippi state public defender Leslie Lee, explaining that the county likely saves money by not paying a public defender during that long lag period between arrest and indictment.