Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Prosecutor launches homicide unit to cope with soaring Lee crime


Tuesday, November 20, 2007

In express recognition of Lee County’s crime spike and the onslaught of new felony cases, State Attorney Stephen Russell is dedicating two veteran prosecutors to form a homicide unit.

Russell said Tuesday it’s a bid to help his prosecutors cope with their mounting workload in a year that has seen both a 16 percent crime spike locally and, statewide, a wave of budget cuts. He said he’s worried the office could lose more money by the end of the fiscal year.

“It’s just this push-pull we’ve got,” Russell said in his office. “Crime’s going this way and resources are going that way.”

Starting this month, Dan Feinberg and Bob Lee are settling into a Cape Coral office to found the new support unit. Along with an investigator and a support staff of one, the prosecutors will keep off the daily docket and stay available should major murder cases arise also in the 20th Judicial Circuit’s other counties -- Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades.

Russell said he expected the homicide unit over time will grow and propel defendants more quickly through the legal system.

But he emphasized that restructuring can only do so much to alleviate the added burden of shuffling hundreds more arrests every year through the courts. Russell said Florida’s top prosecutors already lost a slice of their budgets in state cuts this year — Russell lost more than $100,000 — and he’s concerned he could end up losing up to $1 million before all is said and done.

About 95 percent of his roughly $17 million allocation this year went to salaries for 300 or so employees, including just more than 100 attorneys, in the five counties, Russell said. Every quarter, he said, the state has withheld about 1 percent, but the expectation was that the money would ultimately be replaced.

Russell said instead he’s picking up signals that Tallahassee will lop off the money for good. And if that happens, he said, it means more jobs in his office left open, less travel for training and fewer trips to gather witness statements.

A call to the governor’s office was not immediately returned Tuesday afternoon.

Russell said even without the cuts he would be asking for a greater piece of the budget pie. He claims his Southwest Florida offices are being underfunded compared to the others because of perception — folks elsewhere in the state don’t realize how big and crime-riddled various places here have become.

“The trends have changed in Florida, yet the money continues to go to some of those areas that were built up way back,” Russell said. “When they come here, where do they go? They go to a conference on Marco Island, they go to the Ritz in Naples. And that’s their image — ‘Oh, there’s no crime here. Everybody’s wealthy, living on the beach’...I think that the perception does not meet reality. We have changed dramatically over the last 10 or 15 years.”

Major crime reports shot up in Lee County in a host of categories during the first half of this year, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. There were 28 murders, compared with 21 during the same period in 2006, for instance. Hundreds more robberies and burglaries were also called into local agencies based in Lee County.

At the same time, overall crime fell in neighboring Charlotte and Collier counties.

Lee County Sheriff’s officials have cited the growth in Lee and the economic downturn as factors in the increase. Russell noted it is difficult to pinpoint the cause, but said it is translating into a swamped staff of prosecutors — and a jail overstuffed with defendants waiting six months, or much more, to resolve their cases.

His office already keeps separate domestic violence and special victims units, among others, tasked with working in those specialized areas of criminal law.

In taking on homicides, Lee and Feinberg will focus solely on a type of case that can become epic with complicated twists — particularly, Russell said, when the state is seeking the death penalty.

The state attorney said other felony prosecutors will continue to work on their homicide cases. Rather than snatch those away, he said, the object is to give the new unit the freedom and flexibility to pick through particularly the incoming cases and take enough to curb the backlog.

“It obviously puts a lot of stress on the system,” Russell said. “I’m concerned that victims’ families have to go through a system, a tragic event, in greater time. In other words, I’m concerned it becomes two years, three years, as a norm.”

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