10:06 PM PST on Thursday, February 25, 2010

By DUANE W. GANG
The Press-Enterprise

Riverside County supervisors this week approved a plan to create an alternate public defender’s office to handle only death-penalty cases.

The goal of the office, which will cost about $3.5 million a year, is to reduce the number of cases in which the county must hire more expensive private attorneys to provide the criminal defense, Assistant Public Defender Robert Willey said Thursday.

Under the new proposal, the county could save as much as $1 million a year over the way death-penalty trials are now handled, he said.

“I am hoping people will realize that these are cases that the taxpayer is already paying to defend and they are paying more to defend,” Willey said.

The Board of Supervisors, which approved the plan in concept on a 4-0 vote Tuesday, has not yet committed funding for the program. Supervisor John Tavaglione was absent from the vote.

San Diego and Los Angeles counties have had similar alternate public defender’s offices since 1990 and 1998, respectively.

Death-penalty cases are the most expensive to prosecute and defend. Riverside County has 46 pending.

The law requires that death-penalty cases have two defense attorneys. Costs to investigate the cases are higher, Willey said.

Currently, the public defender’s office handles death-penalty cases for defendants who cannot pay for their own attorneys. When the office has a legal or ethical conflict of interest, those cases go to private attorneys the county has under contract.

But those firms generally take no more than three death-penalty cases a year. Any cases beyond that have to go to other outside attorneys.

Conflicts arise when the public defender’s office also represents a potential witness in a capital case or when there are multiple defendants.

Since it will handle only death-penalty trials, the alternate public defender’s office will exist behind an “ethical wall” and will be the first place those cases are assigned, Willey said.

That will eliminate many of the conflicts of interest that arise from witnesses, he said. The main office would handle any cases that arise from a co-defendant conflict of interest. And the private defense lawyers already under contract could handle the remaining, Willey said.

The alternate public defender’s office initially will take up to eight death-penalty cases a year. The public defender’s office will shift over its existing capital cases unit, consisting of six attorneys, to staff the new office, Willey said.

Willey said the real savings will come from investigations and expert witnesses. The new office will cover all those costs, he said.

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