GREENFIELD – A false-confession expert received $4,000 for less than an hour of testimony during a murder trial earlier this year.
His bill comes as part of the nearly $56,000 taxpayers shelled out to cover the trial of a man accused of strangling a woman to death last year.
Local attorneys have tallied what they spent last summer in Hancock County Superior Court 1 while trying the murder case against 21-year-old Spencer Spielman of Greenfield, who was convicted of killing and robbing his friend’s mother and sentenced to serve 55 years.
In the past three years, five murder cases, including Spielman’s, have gone to trial. Expert witnesses in those cases cost the county an estimated $29,500, officials said.
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Spielman confessed to the murder after being questioned by police for about three hours, sharing with them intimate details of the case that detectives say only the killer would have known, according to testimony.
And the five-figure cost of his trial includes thousands to pay expert witnesses on both sides of the case.
Prosecutors paid about $3,000 to have a forensic scientists and a pathologist to tell the jury about DNA found of the victim’s body and injuries that killed her.
Spielman’s public defender, while trying to convince the jury his client’s admission was coerced by police, spent $4,000 to bring to Hancock County a professor from Massachusetts who specializes in the study of false confessions.
The $56,000 price tag for Spielman’s trial also includes daily pay for the 12 jurors who heard the case, along with filing and copying fees and $90 per hour compensation for Spielman’s public defender, John Merlau of New Palestine.
Merlau reported working about 520 hours in the roughly 10 months he spent assigned to Spielman’s case. He’ll receive a check for about $46,800 to cover the cost of that work.
It excludes the salaries of local prosecutors, judges and court staff who worked throughout the trial. They receive the same pay from the county regardless of what’s on the docket, and they do not collect overtime money for spending a longer-than-average day at the courthouse.
Spielman was arrested last year after he was found driving a car that belonged to his victim, 52-year-old Patty Dresser of Greenfield.
Dresser’s friends found her dead inside her home in the Cricket Reel subdivision in Greenfield late on Oct. 13, 2016. They immediately pointed to Spielman as a suspect, telling police he’d broken into Dresser’s home the day before she was killed.
Investigators believe that Spielman used the sash of a bathrobe Dresser was wearing to strangle her to death. He told them as much during an interview prior to his arrest, according to testimony.
But Spielman retracted the confession in the weeks and months that followed, and his attorney used the walk-back as the basis for his client’s defense.
Alan Hirsch, a career lawyer who now works as a lecturer at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, came to Indiana and testified during the case for less than an hour.
He told jurors he has read extensively about wrongful admissions and has testified as a witness in trials across the country; Judge Terry Snow kept the man from giving an opinion on whether he considered Spielman’s admission to police a false confession.
To some, the cost of bringing in such experts on the taxpayer dime might seem like an extravagance, said John Apple, a Greenfield attorney who oversees the county’s public defenders. But the local lawyers assigned to counsel those who can’t afford to hire an attorney are required by law to mount the best defenses possible.
The sixth amendment guarantees all defendants a fair and speedy trial, and lawyers have to take advantage of whatever resources they can while helping uphold that right, Apple said. And whatever cost the process incurs, the county and its taxpayers are required to pay, he added.
If they don’t, the county can faces lawsuits that could end up being more costly than a jury trial, Apple said.
For example, in 2015 a group of Johnson County public defenders filed a lawsuit on behalf of six of their pauper clients, claiming the defendants were not receiving proper representation because the public defenders had caseloads that were too large for the attorneys to give proper time and attention to their cases. The lawsuit has yet to be settled.
Apple said he pays close attention to how much time local public defenders are spending of cases and how many cases they are taking on. He hopes this oversight ensures local defendants are getting the due process they were promised by the founding fathers.
Expert witnesses, like Hirsch, can carry a big price tag; but the testimony they give is typically an essential part of the case for both sides, Prosecutor Brent Eaton said.
During Spielman’s trial, the prosecutor’s office shelled out about $3,000 for experts, including a representative from the state’s forensic crime laboratory and a pathologist who conducted the autopsy of Dresser’s body.
The insight these experts give helps the jury better understand the evidence, Eaton said. Without it, their prosecutions wouldn’t be as successful, he said.