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County fears big bills in murder case


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GREENFIELD — County officials are bracing for thousands of dollars in legal expenses in the murder trial of three Indianapolis residents.

The Hancock County Council briefly discussed Wednesday how it will pay for public defenders for Ronnie Westbrook, Joe Meyers and Amanda Gonzales.

All three have been charged with murder in the death of 23-year-old Katrina Miller; Miller’s body was found in a western Hancock County cornfield last month, and police believe the shooting death was drug-related.

The Constitution gives everybody the right to counsel, and all three defendants told a judge last week they were without means to pay for an attorney to represent them.

Hancock County rarely has murder cases, and county attorney Ray Richardson said it’s even more unusual to have three people charged with murder at the same time.

It will be an unexpected hit to county coffers, but Richardson said just how much it costs depends on whether plea deals are made or if all three go to trial before a jury.

 “It’ll be a lot. Capital L, capital O, capital T,” Richardson said.

The issue was brought before the county council for information only. The county has roughly $450,000 set aside annually to pay for attorneys to defend people who can’t afford their own. There’s a supplemental fund for public defenders, but there are strings attached to how that fund can be used.

At the suspects’ initial hearing last week, each defendant told a judge they couldn’t pay for an attorney to represent them. All three said they didn’t have jobs or bank accounts. Meyers, who is accused of being the triggerman, said he worked in construction prior to being charged but lost the job when he was arrested.

Local attorneys Jeff McClarnon, Jim McNew and John Merlau were assigned to the trio.

John Apple, chairman of the county’s public defender board, said the suspects will be represented, and the county must pay for the expense. It’s a matter out of what fund the county will pay for the attorneys that’s in question.

“These folks deserve and need representation,” Apple said. “They’re going to get it… And whatever fees are assessed are going to be paid. Where (the fees) come from might be the question.”

Apple said the $450,000 budgeted for public defenders is available, but if more money is needed, the county council will have to decide how to pay the expenses. There’s an additional $75,000 available in a supplemental fund for public defenders, but he’s not sure yet whether that money can be used.

Apple said the county established a public defender board in 1998 to get reimbursement funds from the state on legal expenses. The county gets 40 percent back from the Indiana Public Defender Commission.

That commission also has rules on how the supplemental money can be used. Apple said it should be used only for temporary problems or oddities; he’s not sure if the state board would consider three murder cases in one county an oddity.

“That question is something I have posed to the state public defender commission. I don’t think it’s a question I’ll get a 100 percent answer on,” he said.

If the county council decides to use that fund, but the state commission disagrees, Apple said the county risks losing its 40 percent reimbursement on the public defender program.

It’s a funding dilemma county officials will have to wait out. Apple said public defenders are paid $90 an hour for their work; just how much work could go into the cases depends on whether they go to trial or whether they take a plea deal.

Apple said it could cost the county $50,000 for one public defender to counsel one defendant; multiply that by three suspects, and the county would be facing a legal bill of $150,000.

If the county does not use its supplemental public defender fund, Apple added, the council will have to decide whether to dip into another account to pay for the attorneys.

 

Staff writer Noelle M. Steele contributed to this report.

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