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County’s Cost for Murder Case Lawyers Scored

Times Staff Writer

The county is paying “excessive” amounts of up to $18,000 per month to individual attorneys appointed to defend clients facing the death penalty, a report issued Thursday said.

This fiscal year the county is spending $8 million on the public defender’s office, which represents 85% of the defendants too poor to pay for a lawyer. The county will pay the same amount for private attorneys to defend the other 15%, the report said.

For the last fiscal year, the county spent $2.1 million for attorneys who defended 26 people charged with murder and facing possible death sentences, an average of more than $80,000 per case, the report said.

The report by the county administrative office said the county could save $500,000 per year by limiting court-appointed attorneys to $8,200 per month, a figure it said compares to that earned by “the county’s most experienced trial attorneys.”

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The report noted that private attorneys appointed to handle cases retain their other clients, giving them additional sources of income.

But a prominent criminal defense lawyer, Allan H. Stokke, said his firm takes few court appointments “because the pay is not sufficient on those cases.”

“So if they’re thinking about cutting back, the pay will be even less, so I don’t see how they’re going to get good lawyers to do these cases,” Stokke said.

“The amount of money they’re paying now doesn’t even cover our overhead,” Stokke said. Many of the lawyers appointed by courts are experienced and “know how to do some things quicker than a less-experienced lawyer who might work for a few bucks less.”

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Stokke said an experienced lawyer working for a city on a civil case could receive $100 per hour or more, “and someone’s life is not at stake.”

Richard H. Kelly, an analyst in the county administrative office, said a private attorney appointed to defend someone facing the gas chamber might bill $75 an hour for a 60-hour week, a “not unusual” workload for an attorney. The bill for a month in that case would be $18,000.

Defendants in death-penalty cases are entitled to two attorneys at county expense, which can run a case into “big big bucks,” he said. The report did not name the attorneys receiving the most money. In some cases, the amounts are sealed by judges until the trial and any appeal is complete.

The report was ordered by the county Board of Supervisors during last summer’s budget hearings. Ralph B. Clark, now the board chairman, said last year that the figures did not “make much sense.”

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“We have no control over what now is an $8-million-a-year expenditure,” Clark complained. “A judge decides when the public defender’s office shall be excused, what attorney will represent the client and how much that attorney--investigators and all--should be paid.”

Defendants who cannot afford lawyers must have one assigned at public expense. In most cases, the lawyer works for the public defender’s office, which currently has 88 lawyers.

But in cases with more than one defendant, for example, the public defender’s office is not allowed to defend both, and a judge appoints a private attorney.

Special Homicide Panel

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Sometimes that lawyer is a member of a special homicide panel set up in 1984, which the report called a “resounding success.” Panel lawyers generally cost about the same as public defenders, even in death penalty cases, the report said.

Panel attorneys are paid $65 an hour while in court and $50 per hour for out-of-court preparation.

But “attorney fees for non-panel capital (death penalty) cases average nearly five times higher,” the report said.

The report criticized only the amount spent for death penalty cases, not the total amount spent in general on private attorneys.

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Last year, that total was $5.5 million. Of that, $2.75 million was paid for the defense of 57 homicide cases. Of those, 26 involved the death penalty and cost $2.1 million.

Some courts have contracts with law firms to defend poor defendants at fixed fees. The report said the contract arrangement should be expanded.

“Non-contract appointments continue to incur substantially higher costs and should be kept to an absolute minimum,” the report said.

It also recommended expanding the public defender’s office, which soon may have to turn down new cases.

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Increase in Cases

Public Defender Ron Butler told the supervisors two weeks ago that in the last six months his office “has experienced an alarming increase” in cases, a jump of nearly 47% in felony cases from July through December of last year over the previous year’s figures.

Butler said the office has averaged 446 cases per attorney per year over the past 10 years, while a presidential commission recommended in a 1967 report that the maximum be 300 cases.

In the current fiscal year, the office could be asked to handle 4,500 more cases than it has the capacity for, Butler said, which could cost the county at least $1.8 million in private attorney fees.

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The county administrative office report also called for increased scrutiny of defendants “to ensure that only truly indigent clients” are defended at county cost.

It also recommended better record-keeping in the public defender’s office. The office, for example, estimated that it spent about $1 million in the last fiscal year to defend juveniles but only billed $300,000. The county actually collected only $98,000 of that from the juveniles’ parents.


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