Weber County to pull nearly $250,000 from county budget in '10 to cover death penalty cases
OGDEN -- Eye for an eye, but there's a cost to getting biblical on defendants in death penalty cases.
Weber County will likely have to pull close to a quarter- million dollars out of the county budget this year to pay for the defense of those the county has charged with capital homicide.
"If they were hiring a private attorney and paying general market rates for a capital homicide defense, it would be close to a million dollars for each case," said veteran defense attorney Bernie Allen.
"They're getting a hell of a deal."
The pressure was relieved somewhat with a sentencing last month in one of the three death penalty cases the county attorney's office was juggling simultaneously.
Riqo Perea was sentenced to life in prison without parole after his jury conviction in March for a 2007 gang double homicide. The death penalty was dropped on the eve of trial, but appeals await nonetheless.
The county is in negotiations with defense counsel for Jacob Ethridge, facing the death penalty for a double homicide in July 2008, and Jeremy Valdes, in the same straits for a November double killing.
Neither legal team has been paid for its work to date this year on the cases. The county changed its system of funding public defenders Jan. 1, with no apparent appropriation for capital defense.
Payment schedules and witness fees are now being negotiated in both cases, said Chris Allred, one of the deputy Weber County attorneys involved in those discussions, who concedes the cost could approach a quarter-million dollars total this year.
"Assuming they all go the distance, it might be that much," he said.
A lump sum capital account was included in public defender appropriations for decades under the old Weber County Public Defenders Association. Additional appropriations were made when Perea and Ethridge were charged in 2007 and 2008, respectively. Before then it wasn't much of a concern, as capital homicide charges hadn't been filed since 2001.
But the 40-year-old association was disbanded last year, with the county negotiating individual contracts with attorneys effective Jan. 1 this year. So officials face a one-time-only cost of paying for three death penalty defense teams at the same time.
Prosecutors simply stack their capital cases on their regular caseload, paid via their annual salary. The county hasn't paid anything yet this year for capital defense as the negotiations continue.
"They still owe us for Perea since the end of the year, as well as Ethridge," said Allen, who, with law partner Randy Richards, handled Perea's defense and now waits on their fees in Ethridge's case.
The rule of thumb for a minimum paid to public defenders in a capital case is a flat rate of $100,000 per case, Allen said, which can equate to $28 an hour given the time commitment needed for an appropriate defense.
"A public defender can get beat up pretty bad during the appeal process for what he's not able to accomplish at trial for lack of funds," he said.
That further delays the county's goal of execution when appeal issues are created over the county's lack of funding, Allen said. "And they're the ones who filed the charges in the first place."
Public defender Gary Barr, assigned the Valdes case along with fellow public defender Ryan Bushell, said they've yet to be paid for their work since Valdes was charged in December.
Barr is still waiting on a contract to be negotiated, just as Allen and Richards wait on their contract for Ethridge. Fees in Perea's case are not at issue apparently, just payment.
Barr expects a six-figure contract for Valdes' case, yet to be set for trial and still early in the motion phase. But the $100,000 or so he expects is well below the market rate considering the work involved in a capital case, Barr said.
"You'd think the county would want to make sure a capital homicide trial is done right the first time. Otherwise, that's the first issue on appeal -- ineffective counsel," he said.
"If they want to do capital cases, file charges to have someone executed, then they'll have to pay for it."
Ethridge finally has a November trial date and Perea's trial came 2 1/2 years after the murders, so it's likely Valdes' case will run into 2011. Allred expects to have to pay Valdes' attorneys next year.
It's been decades since the county attorney's office has had three capital cases at the same time, Allred said.
"We certainly hope it doesn't come up too often."
The status of defense counsels' pay negotiations came up briefly Friday during a status conference for Ethridge before 2nd District Judge W. Brent West.
West has set an Oct. 1 deadline for filing further motions in the case, with some flexibility for last-minute developments.
The defense indicated a motion will be coming to exclude potential jurors who might still adhere to a "blood atonement" concept once taught by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Under the defense theory, the belief that punishment for those who shed the blood of another can only come with shedding of their own blood makes a juror unfairly disposed to the death penalty.
The motion was filed in the Perea case, but became moot when the death penalty was taken off the table.
West set a July 16 date for final discussions on a jury questionnaire.
Negotiations continue over the question of Ethridge visiting his private dentist for problems stemming from prior reconstructive surgery. The newly hired jail dentist apparently "only fills cavities and pulls teeth," Allen told the judge.http://www.standard.net/topics/courts/2010/06/06/weber-pull-nearly-250000-county-budget-10-cover-death-penalty-cases