Man convicted in local murder fights ‘cruel and unusual’ court costs

Convicted murderer James L. Dunson makes about $40 a month at his state prison job — money that he’d like to spend on medical co-pays, deodorant and other personal items — but every cent of it is garnished by Montgomery County to whittle down the bill for his court costs.

Dunson is arguing in court that the garnishment is cruel and unusual punishment, prohibited by the Constitution. The American Civil Liberties Union, Southern Poverty Law Center and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law agree with Dunson and are lending him support in his case before the Ohio Supreme Court.

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The trio of civil rights groups filed an amicus brief in the case this week and cited a recent letter from Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor sent to judges statewide last month, reminding them that “courts are centers for justice, not automatic teller machines whose purpose is to generate revenue for governments, including themselves.”

“It would violate the U.S. Constitution to require indigent criminal defendants who exercise their right to trial to pay court costs they cannot afford,” the ACLU and others said in their supporting brief filed in Dunson’s appeal.

Prisoners earn between 21 cents and $1.23 an hour.

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Dunson and his legal team want the Ohio Supreme Court to uphold a 2nd District Court of Appeal ruling that trial courts must evaluate a defendant’s ability to pay before assessing court costs. Mongtomery County Prosecutor Mat Heck appealed that decision to the supreme court, arguing that there is no law requiring a trial court to consider an inmate’s ability to pay court costs. Heck also argues that inmates can apply for waivers from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to exempt them from garnishment.

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Dunson, now 27, has been serving a 18-years to life sentence since his 2013 conviction in Montgomery County in June 2012 murder of Geoffrey Andrews in Riverside. Dunson and another man waited in a getaway car. Dunson is being held at Warren Correctional Institution.

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