Spokane County’s public defender’s office will try to save taxpayers money by sending expensive cases to a new law firm in town.
That new firm, Counsel for Defense, opens on Jan. 1 and has only one goal - taking many of the defense cases that the county typically sends to Spokane’s private attorneys.
It will have the same address as the public defender’s office - the Spokane County Courthouse.
Starting it involves just moving a group of desks and computers two floors up from the public defender’s office, where its attorneys have worked the past several years.
The purpose for the shift, said county Public Defender Don Westerman, “is creating a separate law firm inside the defender’s office.”
Last year, the county sent 325 defense cases to private attorneys and spent more than $400,000 on those defendants who could not afford their own lawyer.
Westerman said the Counsel for Defense unit, unlike anything being done in Washington state, could save as much as $75,000 in private-attorney fees in its first year.
By law, the county must provide an attorney for any indigent person charged with a crime.
About 90 percent of the time, the attorney is one of the 30-plus lawyers from the county’s public defender’s office.
In the other cases, the county has to find and pay a private attorney to defend a poor client.
Those are cases involving a conflict of interest. By law, the county cannot use its public defenders for clients who have one of two main conflicts.
The first involves a person charged along with another person for the same crime. If one defendant has a public defender, the other gets a private attorney to avoid a conflict of interest.
The second conflict occurs when a defendant facing trial also faces prosecution witnesses represented by public defenders.
This scenario, for defending accused double murderer Joseph Andrews, explains the largest amount of money spent by Spokane County last year on private conflict fees.
Several witnesses expected to testify against Andrews - accused of killing two people in 1994 in a drug deal payback - have public defenders for the separate charges they are facing.
“I’m sure that what Don Westerman is doing is largely due to the cost of defending Joseph Andrews,” said Spokane attorney John Rodgers.
The county set aside $350,000 for private fees in conflict cases during 1996.
But the year “was very unusual,” said Dick Sanger, a public defender who will direct the new Counsel for Defense office.
The county kicked in another $65,000 to pay those private attorneys’ legal fees.
Adding to Andrews’ legal bill is the fact that he’s represented by two private attorneys, Kevin Curtis and Dutch Wetzel.
Wetzel said he had no idea what the county paid him and Curtis for preparing Andrews’ defense. A substantial reason for the amount of their work is the prosecutor’s plan to seek the death penalty if Andrews is convicted, Wetzel said.
Murder cases, in effect, are murder on the county’s private attorneys’ legal budget, noted attorney Rodgers.
He and others get a flat fee of around $1,000 for defending a poor defendant accused of a burglary or molestation.
Murder cases are paid on an hourly basis. In the Andrews case, Curtis and Wetzel each were paid $70 per hour for work done prior to trial - a fee less than their standard hourly rate.
At trial, each will get paid $100 per hour.
Rogers estimates the county’s shuffling of public defenders will cost him more than $20,000 in yearly income.
He represented three murder defendants during 1996 - Jerry Boot, Marcella Taylor and Kenneth Gooch.
Based on the loss of income from county conflict fees, Rodgers had to let go an associate attorney in his office, he said.
The new county office will have a budget of about $325,000 for four attorneys, one investigator and one secretary.
“The four attorneys won’t be sitting there, waiting for conflict cases,” added Sanger. “They’ll all have regular cases and will all have a full-time case load.”
Smaller counties don’t have full-time defender’s offices. Instead, most form contracts with private firms for indigent defense work.
King County has the closest arrangement to what Spokane is trying. It has four separate defense units paid for by the county; an office separate from all four assigns cases to different units in order to avoid conflicts of interest.