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Published: Saturday, 6/15/2002

Attorneys selected by court may get fee hike

BY DALE EMcH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Court-appointed lawyers in death penalty cases in Lucas County appear likely to become the highest paid in the state.

The Lucas County commissioners are expected to approve a pay hike next week that would more than double the cap set on the cases.

John Alexander, the commissioners' chief of staff, said he is recommending that the fee cap imposed on the two attorneys required for each capital case be raised from $25,000 to $60,000.

The hourly fees would be raised from $50 an hour to $90 an hour for work done out of court and $100 an hour for in-court work.

There are 22 attorneys in Lucas County sanctioned to handle death penalty cases.

Counties such as Franklin and Montgomery have caps of $50,000, so if the proposed increase is approved, Lucas County would become the top payer.

“We know indigent defense in capital cases requires the rights of the accused to be protected,” Mr. Alexander said. “What cost do you put on that when the ultimate sanction could be imposed?”

The push to get the fees raised was led by Toledo defense lawyers Jeffrey Gamso and Jeffrey Helmick. Both said they would like to see the increase be even more, but they're happy about the proposed change.

“Obviously we're pleased that this proposal indicates that they're taking seriously the need to provide adequate compensation for people who do this kind of work,” said Mr. Gamso, a Toledo defense attorney who specializes in appellate work. “It helps ensure that you get competent lawyers to do this kind of work.”

Commissioners Sandy Isenberg and Bill Copeland said they support the increase. Commissioner Harry Barlos said he thinks the lawyers should be paid more, but he said he may vote against the fee jump because the state continues to reduce the amount it reimburses counties for indigent defense.

“It's not like we have the money and the state doesn't,” Mr. Barlos said. “Columbus has to understand, if they're going to manage the budget they have to do a better job. They can't just lay down and play dead.”

Ohio law says the state should cover up to 50 percent of the costs for representing indigent defendants, with the counties picking up the rest. Ohio's legislature, however, often varies how much the state reimburses based on the strength of the budget.

In 1980, the rate was 50 percent, but it dipped to 33 percent in 1981. From 1983 to 1991, it was at 50 percent. In 2000 and early 2001, it was 48 percent, but it started to fall to around 40 percent at the end of last year.

The news is getting worse for the counties. The next reimbursement rate will be 27.7 percent, according to Becky Herner, who handles the reimbursements for the state's public defender's office. She said the office is running low on funds because it's near the end of the fiscal year and reimbursement requests have been higher than normal. She expects the rate to rebound to around 40 percent in the next fiscal year.

“It's unfortunate, but when the pie gets eaten, there aren't very many slices left,” Ms. Herner said.

John Thebes, an attorney who is helping represent two death penalty defendants in Lucas County Common Pleas Court, said he'll be pleased if the commissioners decide to take the lead in the state and raise the fees.

“I would take the case under the old structure because I personally feel obligated to defend these types of cases because I'm against the death penalty,” Mr. Thebes said. “But this surely makes up for the time you're in court because they are a drain, especially when you're in trial. You tend to lose other cases because you're not available to take them.”



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