MILWAUKEE — The sisters accused of shooting a George Webb employee in the face have been appointed private criminal defense attorneys by the county.
On Monday, Bryanna J. Johnson and Breanta Justice Johnson made their first in-person appearances in Milwaukee County Court.
The hearing was for an order to show cause, because the public defender's office still hadn't appointed them lawyers.
The Johnsons, who are indigent defendants, had been waiting for the state to appoint council since they were charged in February with attempted first degree intentional homicide.
Judge David Feiss decided Monday to appoint private attorneys, at the expense of the county, because the state has been unable to provide counsel.
"It's vital that we get this matter moving forward," said Feiss. "It's vital for your interest. It's also vital for the citizens of Milwaukee County."
In Milwaukee County Court this morning covering the case of two sisters accused of shooting a George Webb worker in the face. He survived. Today's hearing over how they don't yet have counsel. Massive shortage of public defenders in the state. @tmj4 #MKE https://t.co/Ekfkfh9xw0— Bruce Harrison (@BruceHarrisonTV) April 11, 2022
The longer an inmate remains in county jail, the larger the bill for taxpayers.
But the decision to appoint private counsel will also cost county residents.
The Wisconsin State Public Defender's Office in Milwaukee pays private bar attorneys $70 an hour to represent indigent clients. The county pays $100 an hour.
According to Thomas Reed, who runs the defender's office in Milwaukee, it used to be rare to see the county appoint counsel. But amid a chronic shortage of public defenders, it's becoming more common.
"I don't think we have ever seen a situation where we've had such a significant shortage of lawyers. I would say, historically, we might find a case or two where we were struggling to find a lawyer. But nothing like we're seeing today," he said in an interview after the hearing.
Reed said there are hundreds of indigent defendants without counsel, and that's despite state appointed attorneys clearing 45 to 50 cases a day.
Since the pandemic, Reed said, private bar attorneys certified by the state have fallen by 35 percent.
Those who are still working also have a backlogs of cases. While courts were open during the pandemic, he said proceedings slowed down considerably.
There's also higher turnover among staff attorneys at his office, Reed said, with up to five vacancies at a time.
"I think, it's a complicated fix. We have to attract more people into the work," said Reed.
It's even harder to find state counsel for homicide cases, because Reed's office only has 23 homicide-qualified attorneys.
Now that they have attorneys, the Johnson sisters will have preliminary hearings that begin within the next 10 days.
In January, four women at the George Webb on North Ave. in Wauwatosa argued with an employee because there food wasn't served fast enough, according to investigators.
The women were asked to leave, investigators said, but they returned and attacked the employee. He was beaten and shot in the face, according to the criminal complaint.
Prosecutors were able to use surveillance footage to identify Bryanna and Breanta Johnson.
The victim is recovering from his injuries with more than $70,000 raised for him through a GoFundMe. If convicted, the Jackson sisters could each face up to 60 years behind bars.