Murder Trial Bears Great Cost Expenses, Stresses Rise In Death Penalty Case
Kevin Curtis and Phillip “Dutch” Wetzel are about to join a small fraternity of attorneys who endure the legal system’s ultimate stress test.
The attorneys are defending 26-year-old Joseph D. Andrews, who will stand trial Tuesday on charges of murdering a man and woman in a parked car in Browne’s Addition nearly three years ago.
County prosecutors will feel the strain as well because of two words in Andrews’ thick court files: death penalty.
In what may become the costliest criminal trial in Spokane history, Andrews becomes the fifth person in the county to face capital charges since Washington reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
Attorneys are expected to spend at least a week trying to find a jury to hear about four weeks of testimony.
Because such trials can produce the ultimate punishment, those involved often find their lives are changed forever, said a defense attorney in two of the previous capital murder trials.
“It’s the toughest kind of trial,” said John Rodgers, who helped defend double-murderer Blake Pirtle, convicted of killing two Burger King employees in 1992.
In prison awaiting the outcome of several appeals, Pirtle is the only Spokane County defendant to be sentenced to death.
Rodgers also helped defend William Martin Jr., convicted in 1983 of aggravated first-degree murder but sentenced to life in prison when the jury deadlocked over the death penalty option.
“The whole thing is hell,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers and others who have defended capital cases equate the task with an assault on Mount Everest - painful, complicated, costly and saddled with harsh consequences at every misstep.
“I’d be sitting at the table and I could feel sweat dripping from my armpits,” Rodgers said. “It’s no fun for either side, prosecutors or defense attorneys.
“You think about the trial all the time; there’s no weekends off.”
Prosecutors will try to prove that Andrews, originally from Inglewood, Calif., shot Eloise Patrick and her friend, Larry Eaves, as they sat in a car parked near a supermarket in February 1994.
The motive, according to court documents, was a payback for drug debts owed to Andrews.
His attorneys say he did not commit the murders.
“A capital case is different from any other trial,” Rodgers said. “A death penalty case is the only one that asks ‘why’ a crime happened, not just if the person is guilty or not.”
Unlike other murder trials, capital cases involve two phases.
The first - the guilt phase - focuses on the question, did Andrews commit the crimes? If Andrews is convicted of the murders, deputy prosecutors Pat Thompson and Dannette Allen then start phase two, asking jurors to impose the death penalty.
The issue of “why” arises as prosecutors try to prove that no alternative but the death penalty is warranted because the crimes were either heinous, involved multiple victims or one murder occurred to conceal the other.
A penalty phase always adds to the length and cost of such trials. But a number of other reasons account for why Andrews’ case has been so expensive, said county Public Defender Donald Westerman.
Preparing for trial, the county has paid about $380,000 to defend Andrews, said Westerman, whose office represents defendants who can’t afford private attorneys. He said he expects the trial will add $70,000-$100,000 more to the defense bill.
Unlike previous capital murder trials, nearly all of the work in this case has been done by private attorneys, driving up costs. And the work done by Andrews’ attorneys stretched on because two of them had to leave the case due to health problems.
Prosecutor’s office bills have not been totaled for the Andrews case, but they’re lower than the defense side, said Prosecutor Jim Sweetser.
Another significant expense for taxpayers will be jury costs. Because this is a death penalty trial, the county has summoned 110 people to go through jury selection during the next two weeks. Most murder trials here involve about 70 potential jurors.
The higher number of prospective jurors ensures that both sides can select a jury that hasn’t been swayed by pre-trial publicity.
Potential jurors get about $15 a day as compensation. Once a jury is selected, Superior Court Judge Richard Schroeder will consider guarding their privacy by having them sequestered, at additional cost to taxpayers.
The county must also pay for two defense attorneys for every defendant charged with capital crimes. “There’s no way one attorney could do this work. It’s just impossible without two,” Wetzel said.
Nearly every murder trial takes months to prepare, but the Andrews case has taken longer than usual - another factor contributing to its massive price tag.
California police arrested Andrews in Los Angeles in mid-1994 and extradited him to Spokane County. He was initially assigned Westerman and Paul Wasson, a private Spokane attorney.
Westerman had to bow out after prosecutors produced a witness list that included people being represented by the public defender’s office.
State guidelines in those instances require the county to use private defense attorneys to avoid a conflict of interest.
Wasson, within several months, removed himself from the case for health reasons. That’s when Wetzel stepped in.
Causing another delay, the attorney who replaced Westerman worked for several months before a family illness forced him to leave. Last March, Curtis joined Wetzel on the defense team. Neither has defended a capital-murder defendant before.
“You have this never-ending pressure to make sure you don’t screw up, all because of the consequences,” Rodgers said.
Said Curtis: “It’s taken a tremendous amount of work getting prepared. How well will I handle the trial? Ask me when it’s over.”
Wasson - who wanted to defend Andrews partly because he’s staunchly opposed to the death penalty - argues county taxpayers should question whether such cases are worth the money spent to prosecute them.
He said some prosecutors around the country have stopped seeking the death penalty - despite public sentiment in favor of it - because those trials can gut county coffers.
But if such trials happen, taxpayers are better off making sure money is spent for an adequate defense.
“It’s penny-wise if the defense doesn’t move slow and careful,” Wasson said.
Precedents nationwide show that people convicted and sentenced to the death penalty often go through much longer than normal appeals - as long as eight to 10 years - if their defense lawyers did not do a thorough job at the trial.
Those ongoing legal costs, inevitably, end up being paid mostly by taxpayers.
“It’s the right thing to pay a lot at the front end (of the defense), so that you don’t pay a whole lot more fixing the mistakes that happened in the original trial,” Wasson said.