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Friday, April 17, 2009

With Casey Anthony's life at stake, court costs will soar

Right: Village mob from Orlando "Burn her..."
(image from Monte Python's "Holy Grail")

Sarah Lundy Sentinel Staff Writer
April 15, 2009

When prosecutors decided this week to seek the death penalty against Casey Anthony, they set the stage for what could turn out to be a pricey case for the state and the defense.

Death penalty cases are not cheap. Because the stakes are so high, attorneys file more motions, conduct more research and interview more witnesses. The trials also take more time.

For Anthony, the young mother charged with killing her 2-year-old daughter, the possibility of execution promises to prolong and complicate the trial, scheduled tentatively for October in Orlando.

"It can make the case 10 times more expensive. It's a very complex issue that has to be litigated by both sides," said Kevin McNally, a Kentucky-based death penalty attorney who is director of the Federal Death Penalty Project, which collects information on federal cases.

Jurors face tough scrutinyCapital punishment cases need a special jury, and the case comes in two parts: the guilt-innocence phase and the penalty phase — all adding days or weeks to the process.

The first hurdle is selecting a jury. A juror on a death penalty case must be willing to sentence someone to die if needed. That shrinks a potential jury pool, eliminating people who say they can't vote for the death penalty no matter the circumstances.

Unlike other cases where jurors are questioned in groups, jurors in death penalty cases are interviewed individually."It is a battle over each one," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "It can take weeks. ... That doesn't happen in regular cases."

Veteran defense attorney Cheney Mason said it took three weeks to pick a jury in the first-degree murder case against his client, Nelson Ivan Serrano, who was sentenced to death in 2007 for the murders of four people in Polk County.

Once a jury is picked, the trial begins with the guilt-innocence phase, like most trials. Prosecutors present their evidence, and the defense tries to poke holes in the case. The jury then decides whether the defendant is guilty of first-degree murder. If the jury finds the person guilty, the trial moves to stage two: the penalty phase.

Prosecutors present "aggravating factors" — outlined by law — that add weight to the argument that the person should be sentenced to death. Those factors could include whether the killing was committed in a cold, calculated and premeditated manner.

The defense then puts on its case, presenting "mitigating circumstances" why the defendant's life should be spared, such as the defendant acted under extreme duress."It's a second trial within a trial," Mason said. That's where much of the cost starts to ratchet up.

...The two phases often mean double the work for defense attorneys. To prepare for the penalty phase, they do intensive research into the client's background. Every school record, medical record and even birth record may be examined, Mason said.Mental health issues are explored, if they weren't already, he said.

Some defenses pay a mitigation specialist to dig up anything positive they can about the client. These details could sway a juror to vote against the death penalty."It's totally time-consuming," Bartow defense attorney David Carmichael said.

A private attorney in a death penalty case can charge $100,000 to $500,000 in attorney's fees. Mason said he would need to have several hundred thousand dollars more available to pay any experts needed and other costs to prepare for a defense.

In 2006, defending three killers who beat six people to death in Deltona cost more than $1.37 million. Troy Victorino and Jerone Hunter got the death penalty. The third, Michael Salas, got life in prison without parole. Victorino's court-appointed attorneys spent nearly $35,000 in investigative costs and $19,000 in mental-health evaluations. Hunter's court-appointed attorneys spent $33,000 on mental-health experts, according to bills submitted to the court.

...It is too soon to say how much the Casey Anthony case will cost the State Attorney's Office.
Prosecutors' spokesman Randy Means said death penalty cases are not budgeted separately from other cases. But because capital punishment cases typically take longer and have two parts, he says they cost more than non-death cases.

The time prosecutors put in is "three to 10 times as much," Dieter said. "Time is worth something. ... That means they won't be spending it doing something else." More cost may accrue in the penalty phase if the defense has experts testify. Prosecutors would put their own experts on the stand to counter the arguments, Means said.

Seminole-Brevard Chief Assistant State Attorney Wayne Holmes agreed with Means. Many of the "aggravators" that need to be shown are often used in the guilt-innocence phase. The "mitigating" details are what need to be fought.

All of these costs come from prosecutors' budgets, which are funded by taxpayers. Holmes said that is why he keeps track of any major expenses requested by attorneys.

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