Costly trials under the gun

January 11, 2004 

SACRAMENTO -- Lawmakers want to clamp down on payments for high-profile murder cases after a proposed subsidy for the Scott Peterson case triggered questions about exploding costs.

By 2005, the state will have spent almost $100 million from a fund that has given small- and medium-size counties virtually unlimited resources to put away some of the state's most infamous serial killers and murderers.

But with the state's financial crunch, lawmakers are taking a tougher look at the rarely scrutinized program.

The program was established in 1961 and grew rapidly in the 1990s, when lawmakers began carving out pieces of the budget to pay for certain murder cases, maneuvering around cost-control rules.

But the pipeline might be drying up as Modesto-area legislators work on a subsidy for the Modesto Police Department and Stanislaus County district attorney's office to cover the costs of the Peterson case.

Peterson is accused of murdering his wife, Laci, and unborn son, Conner.

"There are too many questions with the way the existing system works," Assembly Appropriations Chairman Darryl Steinberg said.

The Sacramento Democrat stopped an effort last year to subsidize the Peterson case and has called for a review of the program. "We need to look at it and develop criteria that allow us to make an objective decision," he said.

The Modesto proposal included aid to the city Police Department. State law allows only counties to seek reimbursement.

Prosecutors and sheriffs also are supposed to chip in 10 percent to 20 percent of the cost of the trial and investigation outside normal salaries and expenses. But lawmakers wanted the state to pay all Peterson costs.

Plus, the proposal was floating around for months before Peterson's preliminary hearing, and there were no firm numbers about potential costs.

Cost could be $750,000

Modesto police have told lawmakers that expenses for the case are adding up. There's overtime for officers who listened to wiretaps, trailed Peterson with satellite tracking devices and followed up on 9,000 tips fueled by media attention, according to police and court records.

Police say their investigation could cost $750,000. That's in addition to trial costs for the county, including the expense of moving the trial out of town because of the publicity.

But police and prosecutors refuse to say how much they've spent, citing exemptions from the state's open-records laws because the case remains under investigation and the trial is pending.

"You don't want to put a price tag on justice," Modesto Police Chief Roy Wasden said. "You want to have the resources to care for and follow up on these cases."

A free-press advocate questions that logic.

"They have a lot of chutzpah coming to the Legislature asking for a bailout when they won't do a line-item justification," said Terry Francke, general counsel of the California First Amendment Coalition.

With a large hole already in the budget, legislators balked.

"Talk about unknown costs," said Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Dede Alpert, D-San Diego. "They have no incentive to be fiscally responsible if someone else is going to pay and it's not going to be your money. Writing a blank check is not appropriate oversight by the Legislature."

Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Merced, and Assemblyman Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto, who pushed the subsidy last year, have vowed to press forward again.

They say the Police Department should qualify for reimbursement because it was the lead group investigating the case -- not the sheriff -- and the cost is too high to bear for any local government agency.

Other high-profile cases in recent years have qualified for 100 percent reimbursement or a smaller contribution from counties because of steep costs, the lawmakers say.

Mariposa County paid only $74,000 -- less than 3 percent -- for Yosemite-area murderer Cary Stayner's case. The state paid the balance: $2.4 million.

"It's similar to a forest fire," Cogdill said. "When it happens, it happens. You have to deal with it, you have to spend whatever it takes to see to it, that, in this case, that justice is served, and that can be very expensive."

In the state's most expensive reimbursement, Calaveras County received $19 million to cover all costs in the Charles Ng case. Ng was sentenced to death in 1999 for 11 torture-murders of men, women and babies. The case dragged out over 14 years.

Calaveras officials passed on state money to other law enforcement agencies involved, including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Stanislaus County officials are exploring the possibility of a similar pass-through to the Modesto Police Department, but the city prefers to be cited in the state budget.

State officials can't say how many cases the program had paid for. Counties have been reimbursed for detective work, forensic experts, court-appointed defense attorneys, even remodeling a courtroom for security.

In 1982, Lassen County successfully prosecuted a man accused of pulling over two college students in their car with a fake police light, dragging them into the woods and fatally shooting them.

Prosecutors hired experts in firearms, fingerprints and forensics -- they even cut down the tree where one victim was chained and had it shipped to San Bernardino County, where the trial was moved, according to a legislative report.

For a small county, in a remote part of the state near the Oregon border, the cost of the investigation and trial could have caused a serious financial crunch. But the district attorney's office didn't have to worry much about costs because the state took care of the $143,000 bill.

In the program's earliest days, the state was spending less than $200,000 a year. Last year, lawmakers set aside $5 million, a number Gov. Schwarzenegger has suggested for next year as well.

The nonpartisan legislative analyst's office has warned of unruly costs for years.

In the 1980s, the office prompted legislators to adopt limits for travel expenses after the Juan Corona trial cost the state more than $4 million.

As part of the investigation of Corona -- convicted of killing and burying 25 farmworkers in Sutter County -- the prosecution billed to the state a $1,200 dinner in Mexico and $1,100 in hotel charges for eight nights that didn't include the room, the legislative analyst's office said.

A 1987 report by the governor's Office of Planning and Research also urged the Legislature to raise the share that counties have to contribute as a way to curb overspending.

But instead of restricting the program, lawmakers expanded it in the 1990s. They began letting a handful of counties with high-profile cases scoot around the deductible.

Roping in Republicans

With many rural counties represented by Republican lawmakers, the subsidies were added to the budget as a way to attract GOP votes, said lobbyist Don Peterson, who is credited with securing the state aid for the counties.

The budget requires two-thirds support from the Legislature, so majority Democrats needed help from Republican lawmakers to pass it.

With lawmakers looking the other way as subsidies kept increasing, state officials charged with scrutinizing the program also haven't been offering much oversight.

The state controller's office requires only a simple application that asks counties to break down expenses into six broad categories: court costs, jury and witness costs, prosecution, defense, sheriff and "other."

That makes it impossible to determine from records what counties actually ask the state to cover. There are no invoices, bills or receipts. There are no specifics, only total costs.

The controller can audit the reimbursement requests, and counties are told to keep receipts on file for three years after the trial ends.

However, the controller's office has investigated only five claims since 1990. The results have been marked confidential.

Peterson, the lobbyist, agrees that the system might be flawed because so many counties are skirting the rules. And he said the program could use more oversight.

"I think that's a perfectly legitimate criticism," said Peterson, who is working on the Laci Peterson case reimbursement. "A couple of legislators have hammered us pretty hard. They said, 'I'm not going to underwrite a district attorney going on a fishing trip, literally and figuratively.'"

But he cautions that cutting off state resources to prosecutors or defense attorneys won't make trials any cheaper -- the local government still will have to pick up the tab.

"That could turn the county budget upside down," Peterson said.

Bee Capitol Bureau reporter Eric Stern can be reached at 916- 326-5544 or estern@modbee.com.


AT A GLANCE

What trial expenses the state will cover:

  • Travel for judges

  • Court reporters' fees

  • Salaries for extra court staff

  • Fees and travel for jurors

  • Fees for expert prosecution witnesses

  • Overtime for police

  • Extra courthouse security, including construction costs

  • Equipment rental and purchase

  • Public defenders, defense consultants and expert witnesses


    What the state won't cover:

    Normal salaries, overhead and expenses, including court clerk and bailiff

  • Accounting

  • Amortization

  • Bond premiums

  • Standard legal books

  • Budgeting services

  • Business services

  • Depreciation

  • Landscaping

  • Memberships

  • Newspaper and magazine subscriptions

  • Use-allowance of county- owned facilities

  • "Dental plates, haircuts and other expenses relating to improving the defendant's personal appearance."

  • Cash for defendant

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