Wednesday, 3 January 2007

Deltona massacre legal bill a record

Deltona massacre legal bill a record

The trial for 3 killers and preparation for it have cost taxpayers $1.37 million so far.

Kristen Reed
Three defendants, six attorneys, a monthlong trial, two years of preparation . . . $1.37 million. That's the bill, so far, for the court-appointed private attorneys who defended three of the killers in the Deltona-massacre trial.

It's a record amount for the 7th Judicial Circuit -- and possibly for the state. The total shocked the circuit's public defender and outraged the mothers of two of the six massacre victims.
"This is the first case that I've seen hit the million-dollar mark in Florida," said James Purdy, public defender for the circuit that includes Volusia and three other counties. "How can you spend that many hours on just one case?"

Purdy has three attorneys in his office who handle multiple death-penalty cases simultaneously. They earn an annual average of about $70,000 each.

But private attorneys were appointed by the court after a legal conflict of interest prevented the Public Defender's Office from taking the cases. An assistant public defender represented all four men at their first appearances and discussed details of the case with all of them, which might have become a factor later, creating a problem.

The private attorneys are billing the state $125 an hour, the standard fee set by the circuit for capital cases, which in most instances is less than the attorneys charge for private criminal work.

For the attorneys who defended convicted killers Troy Victorino, Jerone Hunter and Michael Salas, those hourly bills totaled $1.15 million. (Robert Anthony Cannon's lawyers worked a plea deal, and he did not go to trial.)

The four men burst into a rental home on Telford Lane in a middle-class Deltona neighborhood early Aug. 6, 2004, wielding baseball bats. Inside, they beat to death the six occupants and a dog in an attack that investigators say was fueled by anger over a missing Xbox video-game system.

The massacre defense attorneys say the steep cost is linked to the complexity of the case, which had more defendants, victims and research than the typical murder trial.

The attorneys have submitted most of their bills, excluding some travel expenses or minor costs. Invoices through mid-December reviewed by the Orlando Sentinel account for attorneys fees, transcribing depositions, mental-health evaluations, consulting fees and defense investigative costs.

Judge unfazed at cost

Circuit Judge William A. Parsons, who presided over the case and was asked to approve some of the bills, wasn't surprised by the expense.

"I think it brought home the dimension of the case, in both the volume of the material and the weight of the responsibility," he said. "It would be hard to imagine a criminal murder case with more information than this case to be reviewed."

In all, the six defense attorneys who went to trial billed for nearly 9,200 hours, the equivalent of more than four years of 40-hour workweeks. They spent months reviewing thousands of documents and photographs and interviewing more than 100 witnesses.

The size of the bill didn't always match the outcome.

Jeff Dees, who represented Salas, charged for the least amount of time, about 1,000 hours. But his client was the only one at trial to get a life-sentence recommendation from the jury.

Frank Bankowitz, who with Ed Mills represented Hunter, billed the most, with nearly 2,450 hours. His client received four death sentences, as did Victorino, whose attorneys billed for a combined 3,100 hours.

The state's Justice Administrative Commission reviews and pays the bills of all court-appointed attorneys in Florida. It objected to several items on the attorneys' bills, saying some fees were excessive, duplicated or vague.

Repeated calls to the JAC's executive director, Victoria Montanaro, were not returned.

Parsons held hearings to review the bills and so far has ordered that most of the hours be paid. Other bills, including those for Cannon's attorneys who negotiated his plea deal, are still being audited by the JAC.

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