A welder named Duane Lake spent six years behind bars in Clarksdale, Mississippi, for murders he not only didn’t commit, but also hadn’t even been found guilty of. He spent most of that time in what’s called “the dead zone” — in jail with no legal representation to fight for him, plead his case or even keep him up to date about what was going on. He was arrested in 2015 and then wasn’t indicted till 2017. Then he waited four more years for a trial, where a jury found him innocent.
“I lost it all — my family, my marriage, my job, my career,” the 35-year-old told the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting. “Now I’m working, trying to get everything back. I’ve got to take it one day at a time.”
After Lake’s arrest, he had two different court-appointed attorneys who represented him at different hearings, and then was left on his own to file motions for a trial. Those motions fell on deaf ears. He got no response.
Reporter Jerry Mitchell notes that this is far from an isolated case. He says thousands of people are waiting for a trial behind bars in Mississippi, around 85 percent of whom can’t afford a private lawyer. In Mississippi, local governments are responsible for providing public defenders to people who can’t afford a lawyer, but their networks are often poorly funded and stretched thin, leading to lengthy “dead zones” for thousands of Mississippians.
In Lake’s case, a dedicated attorney could have spotted the holes in the thin case against him early on and ensured a speedy trial or maybe even gotten the charges dismissed. But because he was forced to rely on a revolving door of overworked and underpaid public defenders with little time and few resources, he languished for six years. MCIR found that around one in 17 people in a Mississippi jail hasn’t been indicted yet. Of those, 89 have been waiting for six months. 29 have waited for more than a year.
You can read the full report here.