Public defender funding issue slows Vincent case - KPLC 7 News, Lake Charles, Louisiana

Public defender funding issue slows Vincent case

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It's now more than four years since investigators say 5-year-old Savannah Vincent was murdered inside a Sulphur home. Her stepmother and father were charged in the case.

But Barbara Vincent's second-degree murder trial is on hold, caught up in a dispute over funding the legal defenses of people who can't afford to pay.

And this is at least the third time in recent weeks that a defense attorney has asked that a criminal case be put on hold due to inadequate funding for a defendant who cannot afford to pay an attorney.

But Tuesday's case involving a murder suspect was the stage for ongoing debate dealing with funding for indigent defense. For years, local defense attorneys have complained there is not enough money to adequately represent those who cannot afford an attorney -- including expenses for experts and investigation. 

Attorney Rudie Soileau, who represents the Louisiana Public Defender Board, said there still is not enough.

"The state board spends all the money it has. It has no hidden agenda. It allocates all of the funds that it receives. We are in the position of trying to make 12 peanut butter sandwiches with a tablespoon of peanut butter," Soileau said.

Yet, since 2003, the state budget for indigent defense has gone from $7 million to $33.5 million according to officials with the Calcasieu District Attorney's office. Calcasieu D.A. John DeRosier said it tripled between 2007 and now.

"We know that you get 33 million dollars a year from the state to handle these kind of cases. Where is it going? We have to pierce that veil of secrecy and show everybody, including the public, where this money is going," said DeRosier.

The DA's office is trying to force the state board to reveal details of spending such as in the death penalty case of Angola 5 accused of murdering a prison guard where DeRosier said $2.7 million dollars was spent on defense for one defendant alone -- who did not even go to trial. Both sides agree those who cannot afford an attorney must get an adequate defense, however DeRosier said, "That does not mean a Ferrari or a Rolls Royce defense that I might not be able to afford for myself but a Chevrolet or a Ford defense. That's what people are entitled to."

However, James E. Boren, an attorney who represented one of the defendants in the Angola 5 case sent a statement to KPLC on Wednesday, taking issue with some of DeRosier's comments.

"I represented one of the defendants who recently pled guilty and received a life sentence. The fact is that the defense representation of all Angola 5 defendants was paid for by the Department of Corrections. Another fact is that much of that expense could have been avoided if my client had been allowed to plead to a life sentence five years ago, when we offered, and before 1.5 million dollars was spent on the defense – an offer that the case's prosecutor refused. It's expensive to seek to kill citizens and its expensive to defend them. And without proper funding a lot of innocent people get sent to prison and death row – many in Louisiana," Boren wrote. 

"The most troubling fact of all is that John DeRosier should know all this. When asked, LPDB staff voluntarily compiled all its financial records for him. There is no veil of secrecy around the distribution of funds that are allocated to LPDB. The facts speak for themselves: the amount of funding for public defense is not enough – no matter how you divvy it up. LPDB has an obligation to fund public defense statewide, and Mr. DeRosier may want Calcasieu to have more than its fair share, but DA's don't get to decide how public defense gets funded. Mr. DeRosier and the District Attorneys' Association lobbied against additional funding for indigent defense in the last legislative session and succeeded in LPDB getting one half of what they needed to avoid problems like this. They now are reaping what they have sown and blaming the lack of funding on LPDB is simply unfair," Boren continued.

Soileau said there is no veil of secrecy and that part of the problem is that other parishes contribute more locally.

"More money is given by percentage to the Calcasieu office than to other districts such as Monroe, Alexandria, Houma, Lafayette or Shreveport. So, it appears to us that the contribution from the state is good and that if there is a question about funding, I think it lies with local funding," said Soileau.

Judge David Ritchie' has given the go ahead to allow the D.A. to examine funding questions in his courtroom as it may pertain to the Vincent case. The judge said he needs that information in order to decide whether to grant a stay in the trial of Barbara Vincent.

However, the defense plans to appeal to the Third Circuit Court of Appeal. The defense argues the funding question must be examined in court in East Baton Rouge Parish -- since that's where the public defender board is based. They are asking the Third Circuit to hurry and hold a hearing on that question, since it affects a number of  cases.

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