This Man Has Spent A Decade In Prison Because His Court-Appointed Attorney SLEPT Through His Trial

Nicholas Ragin has spent a decade in prison because his court-appointed attorney slept through his 2006 trial. This week, his 30-year sentence has been thrown out by the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, in Richmond, Virginia.

Nicholas Ragin has waited a long time for justice. When he was first indicted in 2004, like so many Americans caught up in the justice system, he could not afford a lawyer to defend himself against the charges. Instead, he was appointed a public defender named Nikita V. Mackey.

These were serious charges. Ragin and several others stood accused to running a prostitution ring in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was alleged that girls as young as 14 were being pimped out for $200 a night. Six women testified to being trapped in the service of Ragin and his alleged accomplices.

“This case demonstrated how devastating prostitution, drug trafficking and gun toting can be for the Charlotte community,” U.S. Attorney Gretchen Shappert said in a written statement. “The victims were preyed upon by individuals with no regard for their dignity.”

It took until 2006 for the case to go to trial, and all four of the accused were sentence to a mandatory 10 year sentence with the possibility of life behind bars.

However, we would never know if the conviction was sound, due to the appalling behavior of Ragin’s court-appointed attorney. Judge Roger Gregory of the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that Ragin’s conviction for conspiracy and racketeering can be overturned, as he did not receive the defense he is due under the U.S. constitution. In his written decision, the Judge stated:

“We hold that a defendant is deprived of his Sixth Amendment right to counsel when counsel sleeps during a substantial portion of the defendant’s trial.

“Nicholas Ragin’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel was violated not because of specific legal errors or omissions indicating incompetence in counsel’s representation but because Ragin effectively had no legal assistance during a substantial portion of his trial,”

Attorney Peter Adolf testified at the appeal that during Ragin’s trial, the Judge:

“leaned into his microphone, because we were all sitting there and (Mackey) wasn’t moving and said, ‘Mr. Mackey’ . . . very loudly. Mackey then jumped up and sort of looked around and was licking his lips and moving his mouth and looked sort of confused and looked all over the room,” .

Despite this clear ineffective assistance of counsel, Ragin’s trial proceeded to conviction, without the Judge or any other authority stepping in to uphold due process.

What’s worse, is that Mackey has form. According to the New York Daily News:

He resigned from Charlotte Police Department after 14 years as a cop when facing accusations that he falsified time sheets.

Remarkably, four years later Mackey was elected as sheriff for the same police department, but the state quickly overturned it after a local news investigation uncovered questionable voting tactics.

Mackey has bungled other legal cases, too, like when he failed to appear in court for two separate trials in 2007 and 2008 and once caused a client’s adoption to fall through because he failed to communicate with them about the legal process.

His job performance shortcomings aside, he was elected in 2008 as a North Carolina state representative and served two years in office.

In 2010, the North Carolina bar suspended his license for three years for failing to pay taxes, despite his LinkedIn page saying he is a tax attorney.

And so, Ragin’s conviction has been overturned. Either an innocent man has spent 10 years in jail for a crime he did not commit, or a guilty man has been freed. Either way, the justice system has failed, catastrophically. And not just this once.

As John Oliver highlighted during a 2015 episode of “Last Week Tonight”, even a gifted and determined public defender is unlikely to be able to offer up any kind of decent defense due to the hideous working conditions placed upon them. Many are being loaded up with 1,000 cases per year – that’s three cases per day:

“With caseloads that heavy, public defenders cannot possibly prepare an effective defense,” Oliver said.

“A study in New Orleans, a few years back, found the city had some part-time defenders who could only spend an average of seven minutes per case. And that is not long enough to prepare anything. If I only had seven minutes to prepare this show, I would definitely not be talking about public defenders right now. I’d be desperately trying to fill time right now by listing the Muppets in order of f*ckability.”

Those familiar with the Adnan Syed case made famous by Serial and later, the Undisclosed Podcast, will be familiar with the issues around ineffective assistance of counsel, and the devastating impact it can have on whole communities. Syed has spent 17 years in jail for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee, in a case founded on so many inaccuracies and prejudices that it simply beggars belief that he was in jail longer than a day.

The issue of whether we think a person is innocent or guilty of the crime is secondary to the issue of our justice system failing to deliver effective trials. Particularly to people who cannot afford to pay for their own defense. Without that guarantee, we do not have a justice system. We have a justice system for the rich, where the accused is presumed innocent until or unless they are found guilty. For everyone else, we have plea bargaining system – where guilt is presumed, and it is simply a matter of negotiating the penalty. Not only does this strip people of their freedom, but in many states, their right to vote.

While this situation is allowed to continue, the U.S. Justice system will continue to lag behind the rest of the developed world – and Americans will continue to be denied justice.

Featured Image via Mecklenburg County