Tuesday, September 18, 2007

New criminal defense agency in hurry to be helpful

Staffing, budget issues have to be endured

By Pat Gillespie
Originally posted on September 18, 2007

Jackson Flyte understands this won't be his easiest job.

The Bartow attorney was appointed Aug. 21 by Gov. Charlie Crist to head the Regional Conflict Counsel for the 14-county area that includes Southwest Florida. Flyte's office will represent indigent defendants who can't be represented by the Public Defender's Office because of ethical conflicts. The office will also handle criminal appeals and dependency cases.

Though he's hired only a handful of attorneys so far — the office is supposed to be operational by Oct. 1, it's more likely it will be Jan. 1 — Flyte said he has a plan to lure private attorneys into jumping on board.

"That's going to make the system work," said Flyte, a criminal defense attorney with 16 years experience. "I've got people interested; it's going to take time."

Time has been at a premium for Flyte, who, since being appointed less than a month ago, has been traveling across the west coast of the state, visiting chief judges to talk with them about what he needs to do to make his office work. He has also had to convince county managers to provide office space, which is mandated in the law, but which is not provided in the budgets of each county.

Flyte, who, in 1980, graduated from Cypress Lake High School in Fort Myers, met with attorneys, judges and other court personnel last week in Fort Myers, one of many stops throughout the area he is responsible for serving.

Flyte, who makes $80,000 a year as head of the counsel, has hired his chief assistant, Bartow attorney John Hendry. He has hired other staff and some attorneys, but finding interested, qualified counsel,

and paying them less than he's making, has been his biggest challenge.

"I cannot attract a quality death penalty attorney for $80,000," he said.

About $4.4 million of Flyte's $6.6 million budget will be split between 99 positions, which legislators suggested be divided into 66 attorneys and 33 staff members. Flyte said he'll probably hire more attorneys and less staff at least initially to handle the projected caseload. The remaining budget will be used for other costs incurred in defending clients, such as travel.

"We're competing with the public defender's offices for the same pool of attorneys," he said.

Despite heading up the position, Flyte admits the system is flawed.

"It's just not feasible to do these kinds of cases," he said of death penalty cases, in which the state now pays $15,000 upon completion of the case, which can take years. "I was in the same boat myself. The pay is not anywhere near what I was making."

But the plan to attract criminal defense attorneys is to offer them cases on a part-time basis with state benefits, including health insurance and a pension plan.

The question, though, is what does part time mean and how much does it pay?

"The state's definition of part time and my definition of part time are completely different," said Fort Myers attorney John Mills. "I'll look at the proposal, but I'd be shocked if that's something I'd be interested in."

Mills was one of many criminal defense attorneys who took their names off the list of attorneys willing to take court-appointed cases after the law created the conflict counsel July 1.

The counsel will take away cases from private attorneys and the law makes haggling for more reimbursement in court-appointed cases more difficult while establishing different standard payment fees. One sticking point with private attorneys is the state won't reimburse them until the completion of a case, meaning any expenses incurred, including paperwork, traveling, experts and time, will be done for free until the case ends.

Flyte and Hendry met with circuit Chief Judge G. Keith Cary last week. Cary said about 15 attorneys will be dedicated to the circuit and Flyte's staff will have an office in Fort Myers.

"It's going to be tough," Cary said. "I'm not really optimistic that it'll be pretty for a while."

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