Special Report: The Price of Defense

FOX10 News obtained state financial documents and is investigating how tax dollars are spent in the courtroom.

It’s a criminal defendant’s constitutional right to a defense attorney if he can’t afford one. That attorney is paid by Alabamian’s tax dollars.

In 2011, Alabama’s Indigent Defense Services office was created to monitor spending for court-appointed attorneys. The department’s records show between October 1, 2012 and September 30, 2013 nearly $4 million was distributed to about 200 attorneys to defend about in Mobile County. That’s nearly $400,000 more than the year before.

Indigent defense attorneys make $70/hour.

Infographic: The Price of Defense

In Baldwin County about $1.1 million was distributed to 39 indigent attorneys.

FOX10 News made several requests for an on-camera interview with the Finance Director Bill Newtown to help explain the numbers. We were told he was unavailable for a phone, Skype or in person interview. Instead, Newton responded via email.

We asked if there was a set budget the department operates on? Newton’s answer: Yes.

We also asked if the nearly $1 million jump fiscal year 2012 and 2013 raised any concerns. Newton’s answer: No.

FOX10 News didn’t think those answers were good enough for you, so we asked Newtown again. This time, we asked for more details.

Newton said the department’s budget is about $51 million. He said the numbers fluctuate from year to year because some payments from previous years overlap into the new fiscal year, and that is not a concern.

Defense Attorney: Taxpayers getting a “bargain”

Art Powell is a longtime criminal defense attorney. He handled 11 indigent defense cases in fiscal year 2013. Powell made about $144,000 after representing indigent defendants.

“In the numbers that you gave me, and I had a little opportunity to look into this. Of those cases, two of those cases were death penalty cases,’ said Powell.

Powell was the appointed attorney for Michael Lee. He was convicted of robbing and shooting Kyser Miree to death. He also defended Carlos Kennedy that year. He was sentenced to death for the 2010 murder of Zoa white.

Powell said capital murder cases are difficult and they take hundreds of hours to prepare.

“He is going to be talking to clients, their mother, their girlfriend. He’s going to be talking to prosecutors, probation officers, drafting motions, and that doesn’t include preparing cases for trial,” Powell said.

There is a spending cap on felony cases. For a Class A felony an indigent attorney can only bill the state up to $4,000. Powell said a lot of times the attorneys end up working dozens of hours for free.

The government puts no spending limit on defending capital murder cases.

“I don’t have any problem at all justifying what we do, and how we go about doing it, and the way we have put together our system. It’s more efficient than anywhere else,” Powell said.

District Attorney Ashley Rich: “Disparity in funding”

Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich agrees there shouldn’t be a spending limit on capitol murder cases.

But, she thinks the prosecution should have more funding from the state.

“All we are asking for is help in making the disparity in funding level, and it’s not level. And the public needs to know that,” Rich said.

For the 2013 fiscal year, Rich said her office received about $1 million from the state to prosecute all cases in Mobile County. She gets more money from things like grants and court fees and said her total operating budget is about $5 million.

She said 40 percent of all cases have a court appointed attorney.

The numbers show indigent defense attorneys were given 10 times the amount the district attorney’s office was paid to prosecute those same cases.

Rich said, in some cases, her attorneys make significantly less money and do more work than indigent defense attorneys.

“If a lawyer in my office could bill the state of Alabama $70 an hour for their time, 40 hours a week, 52 weeks out of the year their salary would be $145,000. No one except for the elected DA makes that amount of the money in this office. No one makes near that amount of money in this office,” Rich said.

So how much is too much or too little for indigent defense?

The debate will likely continue to happen outside the courtroom. Meantime, the district attorney’s office and Powell said they will fight for clients no matter the cost.

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