By MEGAN V. WINSLOW
May 30, 2007
STUART — More than 100 exhibits. Two thousand pages of research. Fifty hours of recorded witness depositions.
For "Salerno Strangler" defense attorney Rusty Akins, it all added up to more than 483 hours of work and a $48,320 bill he is now waiting to collect.
But Akins' bill is only about a fifth of the total cost for Eugene Wayman McWatters Jr.'s trial for the 2004 murders and rapes of Jacqueline Bradley, Christal Wiggins and Carrie Caughey. According to attorneys and court records, the four-week death penalty trial and subsequent hearings and filings will end up costing more than $244,000.
It's unlikely McWatters, 28, will ever see a bill delivered to his death row cell.
While Martin County Clerk's Office will absorb the $33,857 cost of copying McWatters' multi-volumed case and filing his automatic appeal, Akins and lead defense counsel Robert Udell, both court-appointed attorneys for the indigent Golden Gate resident, are dependent on a state agency to get paid.
Like the court reporting service that transcribed the trial, the attorneys have submitted bills to the Florida Justice Administrative Commission, and anything in excess of a statutory limit — $3,500 for the attorneys — must be approved as unique and unusual.
"Any time you're dealing with a death penalty case, that is, by definition, unique and different," Akins said justifying his hourly work log to a Justice Administrative Commission representative at an evidentiary hearing Tuesday.
Now Udell, who's billing for $77,050, and Akins must wait days for a court order on payment from Martin County Circuit Judge Larry Schack and perhaps weeks or even months for a final check from the commission. Even at $100 an hour, their payday will be a far cry from the estimated $250,000 flat fee a defense attorney could have demanded from a private client in the same circumstances, they said after the hearing.
While a good portion of the total trial cost can be attributed to defense attorney's fees, the prosecution's total of $15,345.49 is "pretty much in the ballpark" for death penalty cases, said Tom Bakkedahl and Erin Kirkwood, the assistant state attorneys who prosecuted McWatters in the fall.
"Everybody always thinks that death penalty cases cost so much, but there's not a great disparity between a death penalty case and a first-degree murder case," Bakkedahl said. "That's a myth."
The added cost accrue when additional experts are needed to testify during the lengthy penalty phase of a death penalty trial, Bakkedahl said. In the McWatters case, the prosecution presented only two witnesses during the penalty phase: clinical psychologist Dr. Gregory Landrum and McWatters' cousin, Jessica Aleman, who was under subpoena. As McWatters was deemed a sexual predator, a second hearing took place at which a psychologist testified as to whether McWatters qualified for chemical castration. He didn't, but Deborah Leporowski's bill for examining him and reviewing his personal and criminal history totaled $1,387.50.
Kirkwood said she was surprised to learn how low the total prosecution cost was for the case but attributed the amount to the fact that many of the witnesses were local residents and were not flown in to testify. Two victims' family members were compensated $4,890.55, a combined total for travel-related expenses when they came from out of state on multiple occasions to testify.
And whereas some defendants might be ordered to shoulder prosecution costs at a restitution hearing, McWatters is considered "judgment proof" because of his indigent status, Bakkedahl said. Therefore prosecution bills for everything from forensic dentists to 40-cent photo reprints are sent to the county and ultimately, the state.
But when prosecuting such a case, cost should not be an issue, Bakkedahl said.
"Public safety dictates that you don't make decisions based on money," he aid. "It's too important."
BREAKDOWN OF COSTS
Personal time: $77,050
Experts' cost: $15,405
Personal time: $48,320
Experts' cost: $30,847.64
Court Reporting Fees: $18,549
Replacement judges to cover Judge Larry Schack's docket: $4,900.00
Cost of Filing appeal: $33,857
*Total does not include jury costs.