This year marked the 50th anniversary of Gideon v Wainwright. The landmark U.S. Supreme Court case ruled that state courts are required to provide legal representation for defendants who cannot afford it. As crime generally continues to rise so do the total costs of defending those who stand accused.
July 11th, 2013
If his appeals are denied, Jeffrey Alan Weisheit is condemned to die. In the days, weeks, months and years leading up to his possible execution, Weisheit will spend his remaining time as inmate number 10800 of the Indiana Department of Corrections.
As Weisheit took the elevator down after receiving the death penalty in mid-July, he nearly brought the county's budget down with him.
"We tried the case, we won the case and we got the desired result," said Nick Hermann, the Prosecutor of Vanderburgh County. "But we got one percent of the funding that was allocated. That doesn't seem right. We literally took money from every avenue that we had."
"Our defense costs, not the total county costs by any means, are probably going to top out at $700,000," said Stephen Owens, the Chief Public Defender of Vanderburgh County.
Even though some of the defense's costs will be reimbursed, the county's estimated total cost of the Weisheit trial could top $1.1 million when you account for the extra expenses of housing Weisheit in Clark County and the change of venue.
Even though they are both located in the Civic Center, Vanderburgh County Prosecutor Nick Hermann and Vanderburgh County Chief Public Defender Stephen Owens were on opposing sides of the Weisheit trial. They also remain on opposite sides of an issue they say goes far beyond weisheit.
Vanderburgh County is part of the Indiana's Public Defender Program. It was established to ease the burden of the costs associated with providing a public defender to those who qualify. The state will reimburse 40% of non-death penalty cases and 50% of death penalty cases.
State records show the county Public Defenders Office spent more than $2.9 million in 2012, including Weisheit's death penalty case. The state reimbursed the county a little more than a $1 million of that. That left the county to pay the remaining $1.9 million.
The budget for the Prosecutor's Office last year was $1.7 million, according to Hermann.
"It just doesn't seem right that we got less than $2 million and the defense spent $3 million and they are on half as many cases," said Hermann. "I know that's probably skewed because of Weisheit in particular but it's something that we need to look at. If we're going to have increased police patrols, increased sheriff's department and they're doing their job and being more and more effective then we're going to get more and more cases. And that's what you've seen."
"If [the prosecutor's office does] the investigation, they do the testing," said Owens. "That is not included in the prosecutor's funding. But there are things that are available to [Hermann] that are not available to us. I can't pick up the phone and call the State Police Lab and say, please test this for me." Owens says part of the costs of his office also includes rent, health insurance and other related expenditures.
While they may disagree on funding and budgets, Hermann and Owens don't necessarily disagree on case loads.
To stay within compliance of the state's Public Defender Program, state law caps the number of cases each public defender can handle. For example, the number of Class A, B, and C felonies is capped at 150. The number of Class D felonies is capped at 200, according to records obtained by Eyewitness News. Both of these caps are significantly lower than the case loads of deputy prosecutors, according to Hermann, which sometimes exceeds 300 cases.
That brings up another dilemma Hermann says he faces.
The number of deputy prosecutors compared to the number of felony filings have been going in opposite directions the last couple years. Since 2008, there has been a 28% increase in felony filings and a corresponding 15% decrease in the number of deputy prosecutors. It makes for a concerning correlation when you consider the steady decline in funding for the Prosecutor's Office.
"It's just really about can we tie the staffing level to something," said Hermann. "I don't care what. But if the number of public defenders goes up, if the number of cases goes up, whatever it is, we need to tie our staffing level to that so we can stay at an appropriate level."
"The prosecutor controls how many cases he files," said Owens. "We don't. If he decides he wants to be a proactive prosecutor and most of the things that are presented in his office are felonies, he controls that function. I think the last time we looked at the numbers, Vanderburgh County files felony cases at a rate per population only exceeded by Marion County."
Hermann is the county prosecutor and Owens is a former deputy prosecutor but they have both found themselves on each side of a verdict. For as much as they are different, they share some similarities even though they found themselves on the opposite ends of Jeffrey Alan Weisheit.
"We have times we're very excited," said Hermann. "But they are not always when you would expect them to be.
"This job has a lot of highs and lows," said Owens. "I still think about the Weisheit case. Tough case, a tough verdict.