Death penalty cases: Cost of justice

First Posted: 4/3/2015

LIMA — Three months into the year and the indigent defense fund for criminals who cannot afford an attorney likely will be half way spent thanks to one death penalty case.

Judge Jeffrey Reed said he expects the Hager Church death penalty case, which ended with a jury choosing a life sentence, will cost more than $100,000. The court has a budget of $222,201 to pay for lawyers who represent more than 80 percent of people coming through the felony court system for all of 2015, Reed said.

“It will easily be $100,000,” Reed said of the Church case. “I usually estimate when I talk to commissioner about a death penalty case it’s between $100,000 and $200,000.”

But Church’s case was not the only death penalty case. When the year started there was another case pending, Patrick Coller, who recently pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty and received a life sentence. His guilty plea early on in the case saved the county tens of thousands of dollars.

Allen County Commissioner Greg Sneary said from a financial standpoint the savings is a relief but he said justice is the first consideration and that choice is left to prosecutors.

“On that side, we’re just looking at dollars and cents but you don’t know how the family feels on the other side. We leave it up to prosecutors who talk to the family, weigh the strength of their case. It really is their call,” Sneary said.

The year started with a third death penalty case when prosecutors charged a man with aggravated murder in the death of a 17-month old child. That case is pending.

Reed said no extra money has been set aside but commissioners are aware there could be higher expenses this year.

“When we did the budget we let commissioners know we had some cases,” Reed said.

Sneary said there has not been a request for more money in addition to the appropriation set last year. He also said there’s not a lot the county can do for the indigent defense fund other than pay the bill.

The Constitution gives every defendant the right to an attorney and if someone cannot afford it the taxpayers pay for it.

“You just can’t stop the wheels of justice,” Sneary said.

If the fund goes over, commissioners look for other money which may include cutting from the budget of other departments. That is not an option on the table and Sneary said commissioners will not do that or even look into it unless the problem presents itself and there’s no other options.

“We’ll just have to see what comes out of it,” he said. “We haven’t had to do that. We’ve always managed to find the money.”

Death penalty cases can have expert witness fees approach $30,000. Attorney fees typically run between $40,000 and $60,000, Reed said.

There’s also the cost for the jury, which includes meals, a hotel stay during sequestration and the overtime for sheriff deputies and court staff who accompany jurors to the hotel, Reed said.

Reed and Judge David Cheney handle felony cases. In 2014, there was $241,631 budgeted for the indigent defense fund. The actual spent was $254,804. For 2013, those numbers were $202,578 budgeted and $236,689 spent, according to records.

The felony court is not the only court in Allen County the county has an indigent defense fund. Juvenile Court, which has criminal defendants and child support cases, to name a few, budgeted $308,228 this year and spent $287,530 last year.

Domestic relations court budgeted $5,313 this year and spent $4,896 last year, according to records.

The county budgeted $575,000 this year for all indigent defense funds which includes paying for defendants at Lima Municipal Court who cannot afford an attorney, Sneary said.