GREENFIELD — Ensuring local defendants are represented in court is going to cost the county extra this year, thanks in part to a murder trial that racked up more than $50,000 in bills.
Hancock County’s public defender fund, used to compensate the attorneys who represent court defendants who can’t afford their own lawyer, is drying up, forcing county officials to allocate more county funds to defending those in need.
With more than two months left in the year, the fund has just $500 remaining, and bills are piling up, leading the local public defender board to ask county officials for an extra $125,000 to pay those attorneys through the rest of the year.
The past three years, local attorney John Apple, who oversees public defenders in Hancock County, has had to ask the county council for additional funding after the approximately $500,000 budgeted annually ran out.
This year, the money set aside for public defenders — who are paid $90 an hour — is dwindling fast, especially after the fund was tapped to pay an attorney for more than 500 hours representing a man accused of murder.
The Sixth Amendment guarantees defendants the right to an attorney, and when defendants tell a judge they can’t foot that bill, taxpayers assume the responsibility of paying for that representation.
But the county is partially reimbursed for the funding spent paying public defenders in specific cases, including murder.
Since 2000, when the county started requesting a refund, more than $2 million has been returned to the general fund, Apple said.
Apple works with about 35 attorneys who serve as public defenders, representing defendants charged with all types of crime, ranging from misdemeanors to murder. They also represent juveniles and their parents who are wrapped up in the local court system.
During the first six months of 2017, local judges appointed attorneys to represent defendants about 700 times, Apple said.
Sometimes, that representation costs as little as $90 — taking just an hour of the attorney’s time — but it can cost much more depending on the case. Murder cases are usually the costliest to defend, costing about $50,000 on average if not more, Apple said.
Any time a defendant charged with murder needs a public defender, the case eats up significant funding, he said.
For example, roughly $50,000 — about 10 percent of the total funding set aside for public defenders — went toward compensating the defense attorney working Spencer Spielman’s murder case earlier this year.
Apple recently approached the county council about the shortfall, saying the murder case was the largest expense contributing to the fund’s dwindling balance. But even without the trial, the fund would still be short about $75,000, he said.
Council members and Apple debated where to take the money from before choosing to rely on a second public defense fund set aside for special circumstances. The additional funding is expected to be approved at a council meeting next month.
The supplemental public defender fund currently holds more than $200,000 — enough to cover the shortfall — but the state’s public defender council allows that money to be spent only in an emergency, Apple said. He said he doesn’t believe the Spielman murder trial qualifies.
But county attorney Ray Richardson argued a murder trial fits the bill, and the council — which oversees the fund and decides how the money should be spent — agreed.
Historically, Hancock County handled a murder trial every two or three years, officials say. This year, two murder cases went to trial, including Spielman’s.
“Murder trials are definitely an emergency,” Richardson said. “We went years and years and years without a murder trial.”