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Georgia Supreme Court Says Visually Impaired Defendant Entitled to Appointment of a Reader

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Court of Georgia held that due process requires the appointment of a person to read questions submitted by a visually impaired defendant.

Richard Bishop was 76 years old when he shot and killed his girlfriend and injured her other boyfriend in August 2009. Just 12 days later, Bishop pleaded guilty to malice murder and aggravated assault. He represented himself, although he consulted with two public defenders who were available to assist him at the plea hearing. 

In June 2013, Bishop filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. In July 2014, he filed a “motion for assistance” wherein he stated “he was 81 years old, he suffered from macular degeneration, he was 50% blind when he entered his guilty plea, he was unable to read even with the assistance of glasses, and he had approximately 40 questions to ask the attorney who had assisted him at his plea hearing.”

The warden objected on the grounds that a defendant is not entitled to appointed counsel in a habeas proceeding. Bishop responded by clarifying that he was not requesting an attorney; he merely needed someone who could read for him.

The habeas court expressed concern that the questions had been prepared by someone other than Bishop and denied his request without clearly explaining the basis of its ruling. Bishop appealed.

The Georgia Supreme Court said, “A fundamental requirement of due process is the opportunity to be heard.” Grannis v. Ordean, 234 U.S. 385 (1914). “It is an opportunity which must be granted at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner.” Armstrong v. Manzo, 380 U.S. 545 (1965). The Court compared Bishop’s case with Ramos v. Terry, 622 S.E.2d 339 (Ga. 2005), wherein the Court held that a habeas petitioner who could not speak English is entitled to an interpreter in order to receive a full and fair hearing. The Court concluded that Bishop similarly is entitled to the appointment of a reader in order to have a full and fair hearing. 

Accordingly, the Court vacated the judgment of the habeas court and remanded with instructions. See: Bishop v. Hall, 823 S.E.2d 311 (Ga. 2019). 

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