Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Law puts hardship on appointed lawyers, attorneys say
Murder defendant Jeremy Sly's court-appointed attorney quit his case Monday, citing a "major financial hardship" caused by a new law affecting the way court-appointed attorneys get paid.
And some attorneys are suggesting Sly's judge may have a difficult time finding another one to appoint in the months ahead.
The new law, signed by Gov. Charlie Crist May 24, created a bureaucracy to provide attorneys for indigent defendants in cases where the Public Defender's Office can't take the cases because of a conflict of interest.
The law calls for the state to establish five law offices statewide to provide attorneys who would work as state employees representing the indigent defendants. The five offices are to begin providing attorneys in October.
The problem now is, the law also puts more stringent limits on the state's compensation for private court-appointed attorneys, said Sly's attorney, John D. Mills of Fort Myers.
In particular, the law would cut the rate that can be paid to court-appointed attorneys for death-penalty cases from $125 per hour to $100 per hour. Also, the attorneys would have to wait until the cases are concluded before they can receive the compensation.
So Mills would have to wait until Sly goes through a trial and sentencing -- a process expected to take two years or longer --to get paid.
The law abolished the state's current system, in which court-appointed attorneys can get paid 80 percent of their billings after the first year on a case, and the final 20 percent after the case is concluded.
Sly, 37, is serving a life prison term for a November 1991 Collier County murder. He was arrested in February on charges that he murdered an elderly Port Charlotte couple on Dec. 19, 1991. Sly also has been accused of killing a father and his three stepchildren in North Port that same night.
Mills, in his motion to withdraw from Sly's case, argued he would have to travel to interview Sly, who is currently incarcerated in the Dade Correctional Institution. Mills said he would also have to investigate the other murders to prepare for trial.
Mills said waiting until the case is over for compensation would make his law practice unprofitable. He said it would be "impossible" to concentrate on Sly's case as a result.
Circuit Judge Lynne Dailey agreed.
There are only five attorneys in the five-county 20th Judicial Circuit who have qualified to accept court-appointed death-penalty cases. Mills said the other attorneys are also considering not accepting new cases because of the law.
Paul Sullivan, a Punta Gorda attorney, said he will no longer accept such cases after the new law becomes effective July 1. In part, that's because he already has been appointed to two murder cases. It's also because of the compensation limits under the new law, he said.
"It's not economically feasible," Sullivan said.
He pointed out that lawyers have office operating expenses to pay.
"We're hearing a lot of court-appointed lawyers expressing a lot of concern about what's going to happen," said A. Russell Smith, president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The association lobbied against the legislation last spring.
Smith cited the way the Justice Administration Commission, an executive agency that disburses funding for the courts, has begun to implement the law.
The JAC has told attorneys if they want to receive new court-appointed cases after July 1, they'd have to accept the new compensation limits -- even for their current court-appointed cases.
The limits include a series of flat fees for cases ranging from $750 for a third-degree felony case to $15,000 for a death-penalty case.
In some cases, the flat fees in the new law are higher than the fees in the current law. For example, the fee for death-penalty cases is currently only $3,000.
However, judges can now routinely approve higher charges. The new law establishes more restrictive criteria for approving such extraordinary compensation, Smith said.
"Our biggest fear is that innocent people charged with crimes they didn't commit will languish in jail because good lawyers won't work for these rates," Smith said.
Kenneth Kellum, spokesman for the courts in the 20th circuit, said judges have not experienced a problem appointing attorneys so far.
"I'm not saying it won't happen," Kellum said. "It's quite a radical change. I'm sure there's going to be some glitches."
The law was proposed this year to stem a steep rise in the costs for court-appointed criminal attorneys, which now exceed $50 million.
Under the law, a state law office would be established in each of the state's five appellate court districts. Each office would be allotted 38 attorneys for criminal "conflict" cases. Their salaries would be capped at $80,000.
In Southwest Florida, the 38 attorneys would handle cases in 13 counties from Polk to Collier.
Sullivan doubts that's enough attorneys.
"I don't see how 38 people can be in all the courthouses at the same time and still be able to get ready for trials and hearings," Sullivan said.
By GREG MARTIN