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Idaho counties consider fund for costly court cases

Mon., Sept. 15, 2008, midnight

Dues could be used as prosecution insurance

IDAHO FALLS – Paying for costly criminal prosecutions is on the agenda this week as members of the Idaho Association of Counties gather for their annual meeting in Idaho Falls.

One idea is an Extraordinary Crimes Defense Fund that counties could join as insurance against expensive cases. Counties would pay annual dues based on population, and a committee would decide which cases would be eligible for assistance.

“What happens is justice is served by counties that can afford to prosecute it,” Blaine County Sheriff J. Walt Femling told the Post Register. “What happens in those (other) counties? Do they plead the case out to something less?”

Blaine County, which includes Sun Valley and is one of the wealthier counties in the state, spent about $1 million in 2005 convicting Sarah Johnson of first-degree murder in the shooting death of her parents.

“Blaine even struggled,” said Dan Chadwick, a lawyer and executive director of the association. “Can you imagine what would have happened if it was Butte County or Custer County? It would have bankrupted a small county.”

Counties have a similar strategy for death penalty cases, paying into a fund that has distributed about $3.6 million to 11 counties in 31 cases.

Kootenai County received $280,000 to help prosecute Joseph Duncan, who pleaded guilty in state court to killing three members of a family at their home east of Coeur d’Alene on May 16, 2005.

He kidnapped two other children and was sentenced last month in federal court to death for kidnapping, sexual abuse and killing one of them.

Without help from a fund, Butte County Clerk Trilby McAffee said a case like Johnson’s would likely force her county to ask voters to approve a bond.

Jefferson County Prosecutor Robin D. Dunn said his county would likely not participate in a fund, preferring to continue setting aside its own money each year as a reserve in case of an expensive trial.

“Insurance is nothing more than calculated risks based on statistics,” Dunn said.

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