When a I read a news story about the number of Pennsylvania capital murder cases overturned due to underpaid, underfunded, court-appointed defense attorneys, I had to take a look at our local death row cases.
The Philadelphia Inquirer had determined that over the last 30 years, 125 of 391 capital murder convictions or death sentences – half of those from Philadelphia — had been overturned because of ineffective counsel.
In York County court records, I found that only two of 16 death sentences handed down here since the commonwealth last reinstated the death penalty in 1978 were overturned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for ineffective counsel.
Remanded for new penalty hearings, one was sentenced to life and the other was returned to death row.
Two other first-degree murder convictions were returned to York County for resentencing due to confusing or incorrect jury instructions. Both were sentenced to life.
According to the Inquirer, court-appointed Philadelphia attorneys are paid $2,000 for trial preparation and $400 a day during trial.
Local defense attorney Jerry Lord, who recently represented Nanette Craver in what began as a capital case, found that amount shockingly low.
“That’s outrageous,” Lord told me. He recalled getting paid $3,000 – at $40 an hour – to defend an indigent defendant in a capital case in 1994.
Court administrator Bob Chuk told me the short list of local attorneys who are willing to take court appointments to murder cases are paid $90 an hour to a maximum of $13,000 for each case.
In those cases, the attorneys may also petition the court for additional funding to pay for investigations, psychiatric examinations, expert witness and other expenses they can justify.
Our court-appointed homicide attorneys are paid from a court administration line item that currently stands around $1.275 million, Chuk said.
The cost for all court appointments had been approaching $2 million a year, he said.
Chuk told me that last year the court created a panel of 11 defense attorneys who are paid $38,000 a year to each handle up to 100 non-homicide court appointments, including juvenile delinquency and dependency cases.
Chuk said this year the county and court already has seen several thousand dollars in savings.
Here are the costs — not including pay for court-appointed counsel — in three recent capital murder convictions:
Harve Johnson, convicted in November 2009 of murdering Darisabel Baez, $28,715;
Kevin Mattison, convicted in December 2010 of killing Christian Agosto, $7,518;
And Hector Morales, convicted in January 2011 of killing Ronald “Country” Simmons Jr., $16,622.