Death penalty attorneys in Louisiana in short supply

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wwltv.com

Posted on October 2, 2012 at 10:19 PM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 3 at 5:29 PM

Paul Murphy / Eyewitness News
Email: pmurphy@wwltv.com | Twitter: @pmurphywwl

NEW ORLEANS -- The case against the seven people accused in the Aug. 16 shooting of four St. John Parish deputies is proceeding through the court system as investigators continue to build what prosecutors hope will be an air-tight case.

Two of the suspects, 24-year-old Brian Lyn Smith and 28-year-old Kyle David Joekel, are accused of two counts each of first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of deputies Brandon Neilsen and Jeremy Triche.

Wednesday, Joekel is expected to appear in court as a judge attempts to appoint his new attorney.

Smith's attorney Richard Bourke from the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center said right now there is a shortage of lawyers available to handle this kind of work.

"If the district attorney indicts someone on first-degree murder and is seeking the death penalty, there is going to be a problem finding a lawyer almost anywhere in the state because the system is full," said Bourke.

Eyewitness News legal analyst Chick Foret said Louisiana law ensures death penalty defendants get proper representation.

"Someone who is declared indigent has to have two attorneys appointed by the court who have previously been qualified to handle capital cases," said Foret.

Bourke said there are about 120 death penalty cases in the pipeline in Louisiana.

While rare in New Orleans, right now Baton Rouge has about 30 capital murder cases pending.

"Baton Rouge is in a real crisis of representation," said Bourke. "They've got more capital cases pending than anywhere in the state. The local public defender in Baton Rouge doesn't have the money to put lawyers on all of those cases."

Bourke says the state Indigent Defender Board is also running out of money to pay for death penalty defense.

"Death penalty cases are the most sophisticated, complicated and labor intensive cases in the criminal justice system and the stakes are the highest. If you as a lawyer are defending someone and you don't do your job, they are going to be killed."

Foret said St. John District Attorney Tom Daley appears determined to seek the death penalty.

"One of the issues that might come up is, well do you think the district attorney will not seek the death penalty because there is a lack of capital qualified attorneys? I don't think that's going to happen," said Foret.

"There's only a limited number of lawyers who are interested, willing and qualified to do the work," said Bourke. "There's also a whole other bunch of lawyers who stopped doing this or won't take it because the pay is so bad."

Attorneys at agencies such as the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center are paid about $68 an hour by the state to handle death penalty cases.

Private attorneys appointed by a judge to represent a death penalty defendant make up to $110 an hour.

Private attorneys hired by defendants who can afford representation usually charge a retainer and can set their own hourly rates.

The other issue in the St. John Case is will the district attorneys office will stay on since one of the deputies injured in the shootings worked as a district attorney investigator.

Right now, Daley is personally prosecuting the case.

"There has been some talk that perhaps the district attorneys office in St. John Parish will recuse itself," said Foret. "If that happens, the case would go to the attorney general's office and the attorney general's office, the criminal division of that office would prosecute the case."

Foret also says if the attorney general takes over, the attorney general would make the charging decision as to whether to seek the death penalty.

Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore issued the following statement after this story aired:

" BR does not have 30 death penalty cases pending.  We currently have charged five different defendants with first degree murder, where we indicated our decision to seek the death penalty.  There are four other cases where defendants are charged with first degree murder, but no decision made at this time on seeking the death penalty."

 

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