The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a package of staff recommendations to help streamline costs of defending indigents in criminal cases, but made one modification in an attempt to control the costs of outside lawyers.
Board Chairman Thomas F. Riley persuaded other supervisors to agree that anyone leaving the county public defender's office who takes a case with him or her into private practice should not be paid at a rate higher than the county pays its contract attorneys.
"There have been occasions where the public defender who leaves the office (ends up) getting paid at a cost which often exceeds that which would have been (incurred) by the public defender's office," Riley said.
Chief Deputy Public Defender Carl C. Holmes later called the supervisors' decision reasonable. But Holmes said he could recall only a few instances in which that has happened. If a public defender leaves to go into private practice, the indigent client has the right to ask the court to let him or her remain on the case as a private attorney.
"When this has happened, the lawyers have agreed to stay on the case at the county's rate, exactly as Supervisor Riley has called for," Holmes said. "What the supervisors really are talking about is the Randy Kraft case."
Kraft, a 44-year-old computer consultant from Long Beach, was sentenced to death last week for the murders of 16 young men in Orange County. Two of his lawyers--C. Thomas McDonald and William J. Kopeny--left the public defender's office specifically so they could accept appointments to represent him.
McDonald, chief public defender at the time, had asked for a leave of absence. When supervisors balked, he resigned. The supervisors suggested that McDonald should take the case as a public defender, at his usual salary.
The total attorney fees in the Kraft case have been sealed by court order. But two of his lawyers, McDonald and James G. Merwin, were paid $90 an hour for in-court time. Kopeny was paid $50 an hour and refused to ask for a pay raise the court had granted his colleagues.
Because the costs have been sealed, the county supervisors have been given no report to indicate how much the Kraft case has cost the county so far.
But Holmes said the Kraft case is not comparable to the kind of situation Riley's amendment seeks to prevent. The Kraft case, Holmes pointed out, had never been assigned to the public defender's office. It had gone from private attorney to court-appointed attorney when Kraft's family did not have enough money to continue his defense. McDonald was recommended to the court by Merwin, a longtime friend who was already on the case.
The package of recommendations from the County Administrative Office that was approved Tuesday includes more stringent scrutiny of money paid to a contract lawyer after the public defender declares a conflict of interest in handling the case of an indigent defendant.
Another gives judges more input in setting standards for fees to those contract cases. Another is designed to tighten controls in cases in which defendants claim to be indigents, yet have some assets that could go toward the cost of their case.