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Mississippi Ends ‘Dead Zone’

by Jordan Arizmendi

In April 2023, the Mississippi Supreme Court unanimously amended the state’s Rules of Criminal Procedure to eliminate the “dead zone.” Essentially, Rule 7.2 of Mississippi declares that counsel must be provided to an indigent defendant after they have been indicted. In re Miss. Rules of Crim. Procedure, 2023 Miss. LEXIS 103 (2023).

Previously, a defendant in Mississippi was not guaranteed counsel “at the critical pretrial stage between arrest and arraignment following indictment.” The time could be prolonged, without the ability to pay for legal assistance. Time spent in the Mississippi “dead zone” averaged from two months to more than a year.

The Mississippi public defender system has been criticized for years. Under Mississippi state law, a defendant’s constitutional right to an attorney does not exist until the defendant is indicted. To make matters worse, attorneys in counties without public-defender offices are not able to do much regarding their client’s case because they only start working once their client is charged. For example, Duane Lake had to wait almost three years in the Coahoma County jail without a lawyer, before being indicted.

Cliff Johnson, the director of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law, said, “You do get a lawyer, but you just get them for a very brief period of time. That lawyer disappears. You wait in jail without a lawyer until you get indicted.”

After all, the purpose of a lawyer is to weigh the strength of the evidence in the case and to possibly argue for a reduction or dismissal of charges. On the other hand, if the evidence is tough to beat, a lawyer could negotiate a plea bargain so that the client spends far less time in jail.

The rule change is certainly admirable, though some critics question its efficacy. Without a statewide public defender system, there is no way to ensure each Mississippi defendant is provided the counsel to which they are entitled.  




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