Thursday, May 17, 2007

Lawyers challenge defender changes

Say bill would hurt poor

By JAY STAPLETON, Daytona Beach News-Journal

DAYTONA BEACH -- A new arm of the judicial system being created to savemoney will leave some poor people charged with crimes suffering because they won't get the best legal defense money can buy, some local lawyers have warned.

Cost of conflict For the year 2007, $60 million is expected to be spent for "conflict"attorneys statewide, $20 million more than expected. The high and unpredictable cost of these attorneys' services prompted a law establishing government defense attorneys to handle most of those cases.

NEW PLAN STATEWIDE: The new plan calls for five offices to be staffed with 384 people to handle more than 33,000 cases, at an annual cost of $49 million.

LOCALLY: 97 employees at a cost not yet determined.

LOCAL 2006-07 CONFLICT CASE COST: $2.5 million for 1,261 cases, $1.3 million above budget.

DELTONA MURDERS TRIAL COST: $1.4 million* *Resulted in the convictions of killers Michael Cannon, Jerone Hunter, Anthony Salas and Troy Victorino. Hunter and Victorino are on death row.
(SOURCE: State of Florida)

The Public Defender's Office provides legal representation in adult and juvenile criminal cases for people who can't afford a lawyer. A new, controversial state law will add regional state-employed defense attorneys to handle some cases that had been assigned to private lawyers.

WHO QUALIFIES: Those whose household incomes are up to double the federal poverty guidelines. For example, $40,000 for a family of four or $19,600 for individuals.

CASELOAD: Jim Purdy is the elected public defender. His office, which includes Volusia and Flagler counties and has 85 attorneys, handles about 41,600 cases a year. **

"When the Supreme Court starts reversing cases, the government is going to pay all over," said Gerard Keating, a court-appointed, death penalty certified attorney from the area who sees the measure as penny-wise and pound-foolish.

"I don't know if I'll be doing too many murder cases at all in the future."But finding itself with a projected $20 million over budget for the 2007 year -- including bills for those charged with crimes whose cases are a conflict of interest with public defender offices -- the Legislature passed a bill to create a "second Public Defender," to handle conflict cases.

The measure, approved by both houses without much fanfare last month, will create a new office of state-paid lawyers to handle conflict cases. The new plan is awaiting the signature of Gov. Charlie Crist, even as some defense lawyer groups are working behind the scenes for a veto.

"I am skeptical about the quality of representation that's going to be given to these persons in the next couple of years," Keating said.

But supporters, including Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, who sponsored the bill, have said the measure will save the state millions.

About 4 percent of all criminal cases of indigent people have been handled by court-appointed "conflict attorneys" in recent years.

Some cases, including child custody and other family and civil issues for the poor, are also handled by private attorneys because public defender offices have never been included in those.

Because public defender offices are considered law firms, the agencies are not permitted to represent multiple defendants charged in crimes, which often occurs in robbery, murder and burglary cases. The funding for conflict attorneys shifted from counties to the state in 2004.

Since then, rising legal costs, including $1.4 million billed to the state in last year's defenses of four men who killed six people in a Deltona house, have prompted lawmakers to take action.

Governor-appointed administrators will supervise the new attorneys in each of five regional areas that mirror the state's courts of appeal districts.

Those administrators will be paid $80,000 a year, with the attorneys presumably making less. While it has not yet been said how many attorneys will be hired for the local district, the plan calls for 97 employees in Central Florida, including support staff, said James Purdy, public defender for the 7th Judicial Circuit that includes Volusia, Flagler, St. Johns and Putnam counties. The offices, paid for by counties, are supposed to be up and running by Oct. 1.

The new plan is expected to cost the state $49 million a year, but somethink it could cost much more."The travel (expense) is going to be outrageous," said defense lawyer Rob Sanders, adding that he has paid $1,500 out-of-pocket in a murder case for copies alone.

Many private attorneys like Sanders say they see the state-appointed cases as a way to supplement their incomes, even if getting paid from the state can seem like "pulling teeth." But a few others, including former prosecutor Ray Warren, stopped handling such cases in 2004, when the state took over.

Warren had researched the issue, he said, and found that an attorney appointed to a case by the state Supreme Court ended up not getting paid $6,000 for work he did."I refuse," Warren said. "It's a violation of due process."

Keating, a local defense lawyer who has handled dozens of murder cases over the past 26 years that the local Public Defender's Office had conflicts in, said he has doubts the new plan will work.

"I'm skeptical about the quality of representation that's going to be given to these persons in the next couple years," he said.

He and other critics of the new plan say court-appointed private lawyers have worked competently and economically. In most felony cases, the state pays court-appointed lawyers about $750, according to Public Defender Purdy.

Even with a state cap of $3,500, death penalty murder cases by conflict attorneys have been averaging $100,000 to $150,000.

Not all of the high bills have been racked up on murder cases. According to the Justice Administrative Commission, which has been paying the bills, attorney Joan Anthony earned $95,397 from the state to handle 156 cases for the fiscal year that ended in 2006.

Keating, who earned $57,252 for three cases during that period, according to state records, handles about one death penalty case per year in addition to his private practice cases. He acknowledged the change will hit him in the wallet.

"I'm definitely going to suffer that loss of income," he said. "But I see it as an opportunity to develop other specialties."Some questioned whether experienced lawyers will want to work for the new entity. Purdy has concerns about representation."I think they've tried to come up with a different way of doing it that is on the cheap, with saving money a priority over providing competent council for the accused," Purdy said.

"We don't expect the Legislature to fund court-appointed council at the same rate a rich person can hire the dreamteam. But, at the same time, we don't expect a person facing a felony charge and potential prison sentence to have to settle for inadequaterepresentation.

"Circuit Judge William Parsons, the chief judge for the local circuit, is also concerned."All we want is good lawyers to represent people," he said.

State Attorney John Tanner is in favor of the plan. He disagreed with critics who doubt experienced lawyers will want to work for the new agency, although he admitted the lawyers may be underpaid."I like the plan," he said. "I think there are a lot of very experienced lawyers who would probably love to leave private practice and have a few years in state service."---Source : Daytona Beach News-Journal

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