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Missouri case needs to be reviewed by the Supreme Court

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That, they say, puts all of society at risk.

Greene County Prosecutor Dan Patterson used the analogy of a three-legged stool. For the criminal justice system to work, all three "legs" -- the courts, the prosecution and the defense -- have to be equally strong.

Rod Hackathorn, the district defender for the Springfield public defender office, echoed that sentiment: "The defense is just as important as all the other parts of the system if you really believe in our justice system."

 Cyndy Short, a former Missouri public defender who now does work across the country for indigent clients, said "poor" takes on a new meaning for those accused of serious crimes. "The fact of the matter is, once you get into capital (punishment cases), no matter how much money (a client) has, he can't afford a capital defense," she said.

The problem.

The state Supreme Court is working to resolve a long-held debate over how the Missouri Public Defender Commission operates.

The commission says public defenders are so overrun with cases, it had to do something. In the Springfield office, which serves Christian, Greene and Taney counties, 4,829 new cases were opened in fiscal 2010 alone.

With 20 attorneys splitting the workload, the Springfield office said it just couldn't handle any more; attorneys started periodically refusing new cases. The Springfield office was the first to close, but several others have followed suit.

Prosecutors argue they have similar, if not higher, workloads. In Greene County, prosecutors filed more than 11,000 cases in 2010, with about 4,000 more cases reviewed but not charged. Greene County had 23 attorneys during that time period.

Legislators acknowledge the entire criminal justice system needs more funding -- but more money in this year's budget cycle for anything seems unlikely, as Gov. Jay Nixon has proposed an overall budget cut of about $500 million.

Defendants and their families say they just want a solution.

Caught in the middle.

During a recent interview with the News-Leader, Blacksher sat in a small holding cell while chained to a stool cemented to the floor. Blacksher has been in the jail long enough that he recognized another man being booked during the interview. He said the other inmate had been in the jail three times since Blacksher began his stay.

"One of the worst things is watching people come and go. Sometimes it's just pretty unbearable," he said.

While others move through the system at a normal pace, his case has stagnated.

Blacksher readily admits to the burglary and forgery charges that landed him in jail in the first place. He had plans, in fact, to plead guilty and begin a drug treatment program with the Missouri Department of Corrections.

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