GREENFIELD – Three murder trials loom on the local court docket, and prosecutors say they need more taxpayer dollars to prosecute the violent crimes.
Hancock County Prosecutor Brent Eaton this week told the county council his budget for trials is dwindling and asked for more funding. He didn’t specify an amount of money, saying he can’t guarantee whether all three cases will go to trial or what expenses his office will incur if they do.
Annually, the council budgets $5,000 to pay expert witnesses who testify during criminal trials.
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As of this week — with three and a half months left in the year — the fund has only $607, said Shelli Poppino, director of operations for the Hancock County Prosecutor’s Office.
The council plans to allot $20,000 from the county’s food and beverage tax fund — generated by a tax charged to county diners — noting murder trials generally cost about $5,000 each.
It’s the second time this week county officials were forced to allocate emergency funding to pay expenses associated with prosecuting people accused of violent crimes. The county’s public defender fund, which is used to pay the attorney fees of defendants who can’t pay them, will fall about $75,000 short this year, and officials said high-profile cases, such as murder, are to blame.
The prosecutor’s office is responsible for paying expert witnesses, such as doctors, who testify on the state’s behalf during criminal proceedings; it’s also charged for copies of court records, Eaton said. Murder trials tend to dry up those funds quickly, he said.
The prosecutor’s transcript fund, which covers such copying fees, has $1,560 remaining of the $5,000 budgeted for the year, Poppino said.
Four murder trials in one year — the most in recent memory — is unusual, Eaton said.
Until recently, the prosecutor’s office handled a murder case once every two or three years. Now, such violent crimes are happening more frequently, Eaton said. This year alone, three people were charged with murder in Hancock County.
Two murder trials are slated for October and December, and a third murder trial is scheduled for the beginning of the year, Eaton said.
Matthew Wagoner, who was convicted earlier this year of murdering his 1-year-old daughter Zoey Wagoner, marked the first murder trial of the year. During those proceedings, the prosecutor’s office paid two doctors to testify on the state’s behalf about the toddler’s injuries — one was paid $2,000, and the other cost the county about $2,170, Poppino said.
The forensic pathologist from Marion County who examined Zoey’s body after her death detailed for jurors the injuries that likely killed the little girl. Those witnesses are imperative to proving a murder case, Eaton said. Prosecutors rely on them to tell the jury how the victim died.
“We know with these cases we absolutely have to have an expert witness,” Eaton said. “That takes money.”
Also this year, approximately $200 was spent on bus tickets for witnesses who traveled from Gary to testify during the reckless homicide trial of Charles Goodman, an intoxicated church bus driver who caused an accident that killed a 6-year-old boy last year.
Budgeting isn’t perfect, Eaton said. When he creates a financial plan for the year, he considers what the office has spent in the past. This year, that won’t be enough.
It’s the second time in recent years the prosecutor’s office faced a budget deficit due to an unexpected increase in murder cases.
In 2014, three defendants were charged in the murder of Katrina Miller, whose body was found in a Hancock County cornfield near the Marion County line. Then prosecutor Michael Griffin came before the council to request an additional $48,000 to cover the cost of their prosecution.
The next murder trial is scheduled for Oct. 11 for Damian Coleman, who is charged in the shooting death of Shannon Kitchens. His co-defendant, Shawn Hammons, will appear in court for trial Dec. 13.
Joseph Baker, who was charged with murder last spring in the death of Duane Begley, goes to trial Jan. 9. Investigators say Baker ran over Begley with his truck after the two fought over a woman.
Of course, plea deals could be struck between now and the trials’ start dates, Eaton said. But if proceedings begin, the prosecutor’s office will incur costs it can’t pay with its remaining funds.
“That testimony doesn’t come cheap,” he said. “It’s impossible to make that case without an expert.”
Defendant: Shawn Hammons
The case: Investigators say Hammons and his co-defendant, Damian Coleman, shot and killed McCordsville native Shannon Kitchens during a drug deal in April and left his body along a Hancock County road.
- Two counts of murder
- Battery, a Level 3 felony
- Conspiracy to commit battery, a Level 3 felony
- Attempt to deal a narcotic drug, a Level 3 felony
- Conspiracy to deal a narcotic drug, a Level 3 felony;
- Altering the scene of a death, a Level 6 felony
- Failure to report a dead body, a Class A misdemeanor
Next court hearing: Hammons’ trial is slated to begin Dec. 13 in Hancock Circuit Court.
Defendant: Damian Coleman
The case: Investigators say Damian Coleman and his co-defendant, Shawn Hammons, shot McCordsville native Shannon Kitchens during a drug deal in April. Hammons told investigators Coleman pulled the trigger.
- Two counts of murder
- Attemp to commit robbery, a Level 3 felony
- Conspiracy to commit robbery, a Level 3 felony
- Attempt to deal cocaine, a Level 3 felony
- Conspiracy to commit dealing, a Level 3 felony
Next court hearing: Coleman’s jury trial is slated to begin Oct. 11 in Hancock Circuit Court.
Defendant: Joseph Baker
The case: Investigators say Joseph Baker struck and killed his ex-wife’s new boyfriend, Duane Begley, with his pickup truck in New Palestine in April after the two men had scuffled over the woman.
Next court hearing: Baker’s trial is slated to begin Jan. 9 in Hancock County Superior Court 1.