Spokane attorney Bevan Maxey and Hells Angel Timothy Myers can smile. The check is in the mail.
State officials Thursday sent 13 checks totaling $286,000 to attorneys who cleared their clients of criminal charges, convincing juries they had acted in self-defense.
Maxey will get the biggest check - for $71,600.
About $14,000 of that goes to Myers for lost wages after he went on trial last year, charged with murdering a rival motorcycle gang member in a 1995 Spokane bar fight.
Those payments are part of more than $6 million in legal bills the state has paid since a self-defense reimbursement fund was created in 1977.
Most Washington residents - the ones picking up the tab - don’t know the fund exists.
Under the law, persons charged with murder or assault - or facing charges for helping someone in imminent danger of rape, robbery or serious injury - can recover legal costs, court fees and lost wages.
Introduced by Rep. A.L. Rasmussen, D-Tacoma, the bill stirred controversy 20 years ago.
Rasmussen and other lawmakers argued that citizens should be protected from criminal prosecution if they use deadly force while fending off criminals. Law enforcement officials fretted that the new law could lead to increased shootings.
Today, the debate continues. Some critics, such as Walla Walla County Prosecutor Jim Nagle, say the law is unnecessary and burdens taxpayers with someone else’s legal bills.
“Why should the state pay the defense costs for these crimes only?” asked Nagle, who wants to see the law scrapped.
“Should all defendants, even those charged with property crimes, have the same option of getting their bills paid if they prove the charges were not solid?”
Others, including many defense attorneys, have lobbied legislators to change the law so legal costs are borne by counties.
“It makes more sense if the people filing frivolous charges - prosecuting attorneys - had to deal with the costs, not the state itself,” said Spokane defense attorney Pat Stiley. Legislators so far have left the law unchanged. The cost to the state hasn’t caused much heartburn in Olympia - yet.
Last year’s payout was about $184,000, but the total in past years has topped $300,000.
Next year, legislators will likely see a reimbursement request for $86,000, stemming from a Spokane murder case.
At a hearing this afternoon, attorney Carl Oreskovich will ask a Spokane County judge to approve the reimbursement for the cost of clearing ex-Marine Eric Swanson of a first-degree murder charge.
Oreskovich convinced a jury in March that Swanson, 20, acted in self-defense last summer when he shot and killed 26-year-old Robert Wolbing outside a Valley strip club.
“The charges they filed against Eric had him looking at spending most of the rest of his life in prison,” Oreskovich said.
“The costs of defending a case like that are horrendous. It was a pull-out-all-the-stops case.”
Legal fees in Swanson’s defense came to $79,000. Miscellaneous fees for witnesses, investigators and preparation of trial exhibits totalled more than $6,000.
If a judge approves, the next step is submitting the request to the state Department of General Administration.
That office can approve reimbursement requests involving amounts up to $2,000. Bigger claims are forwarded to the Legislature.
Almost all claims are paid, but the process can drag on. Today, more than a dozen requests are awaiting action from legislators.
On the waiting list is Spokane attorney John Clark, who won a self-defense verdict for a client charged with fourth-degree assault. He hopes to recover about $5,800.
Several years ago, Clark received about $20,000 from the state after defending a Spokane man charged with felony assault. It took almost two years for the state to issue the check.
“It’s no bonanza for attorneys,” Clark said of the law.
But it helps ordinary people recover legal costs when facing overzealous prosecution, the attorney said.
“The government has the full arsenal of weapons when it takes people to court,” Clark said. “This (option) makes sure citizens have some way of recovering their costs when wrongly accused of a crime.”