Jeff Jardine

How much has Kauffman case cost so far? Requesting minds want to know but out of luck for now

Percy Martinez speaks with the media after his client, Modesto attorney Frank Carson, and two co-defendants in the Korey Kauffman murder case were released from jail Dec. 22. He was one of two people who filed public records requests to know how much the county has spent to date on murder trial involving Carson.
Percy Martinez speaks with the media after his client, Modesto attorney Frank Carson, and two co-defendants in the Korey Kauffman murder case were released from jail Dec. 22. He was one of two people who filed public records requests to know how much the county has spent to date on murder trial involving Carson. aalfaro@modbee.com

Investigations dating back to 2012. A preliminary hearing in a case involving multiple defendants that is dragging into its 16th month by the time it resumes in February.

So how much has the Korey Kauffman murder case cost the taxpayers so far? It is a good question that, Stanislaus County Counsel John Doering said, won’t be answered anytime soon and certainly not until the case concludes, if ever.

Doering said the county has received two California public records requests, including one from defendant Frank Carson’s attorney, Percy Martinez. They want to know how much the county is spending to try the prominent local defense attorney who lost a bid to unseat District Attorney Birgit Fladager in 2014. They believe the murder and other charges against Carson are payback because he challenged her politically and because he has beaten the prosecution in some major criminal cases.

The answer to both inquiries was the same: The district attorney doesn’t track time for specific cases. And even if the office did, the information is excluded from the Public Records Act.

“Therefore, even if such records did exist, such records would be exempt from disclosure,” Deputy County Counsel Rob Tero wrote in response to the other public records requester, former Modesto Mayor Carmen Sabatino.

The decision of whether to try a murder case should not be based on the projected costs, Doering and others say. The Board of Supervisors, which approves each department’s budget, has no authority over prosecutorial discretion, he said. That doesn’t mean Flagader won’t have to go before the board to request more money for her department, which would most likely happen during midyear rebudgeting sessions.

Consequently, when no running totals are kept, speculation runs rampant. Unsubstantiated because the county won’t substantiate them, some claims range from $4 million to $7 million, and the case isn’t yet at trial.

“I don’t know where they are getting those numbers,” Doering said.

John Sims, a professor at the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento and expert on public records law, confirmed that information involving ongoing investigations is exempt from the Public Records Act.

“And the open records (law) doesn’t require the government to create records,” Sims said. “If they choose to extract certain information and make it available, they can do that.”

But with reduced staffing, many government agencies will do only what the law requires.

Salaries of the police, sheriff’s investigators, jailers and bailiffs, and district attorney staffers including investigators, prosecutors and clerical cannot be counted in the total trial cost. They are on the payroll anyway and their salaries are accounted for within each department’s annual budget. Neither the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department nor the Modesto police track the time a salaried investigator spends on a specific investigation. They do track overtime and expenses from particular cases.

And while the Stanislaus Superior Court’s name suggests it is a department of the county, it is not. The court costs including the lease of the former U.S. Bankruptcy Court building on 12th Street, where the case is situated, are covered by the state and not the county. It’s still a cost to the taxpayer, but paid from a budget divvied up among the superior courts in the 58 counties. The Judicial Council also pays the salary and expenses of Judge Barbara Zuniga, assigned to the Kauffman case after all of the Stanislaus Superior Court judges recused themselves because they have presided over cases in which Carson represented a defendant.

That stated, the costs of some high-profile murder trials have been calculated, including the Scott Peterson case. From start to finish, it cost the county and investigative agencies $4.13 million. The Modesto police alone ran up a $1.55 million bill, as reported in The Bee in April 2005, just weeks after Peterson went to San Quentin’s death row. The Peterson case involved an extensive search for Laci Peterson that ran up overtime bills and took investigators out of the area.

The defense asked for and received a change of venue. The proceedings went to Redwood City, which made costs much easier to track. The prosecution team spent roughly 11 months living and working out of the county, eight months in San Mateo County.

When it was over, San Mateo County billed Stanislaus County $182,118 for court-associated costs. The state reimbursed $1.12 million to the police and $860,700 to the county, and it totaled less than half of the overall cost of prosecuting the case.

The case against Carson and the others no doubt is expensive, and costs at this point are guesstimates. The sheer cost of prosecution won’t be a factor in whether the judge will hold Carson or any of the others over for trial.

Said Doering, “We know justice comes at a price. But who’s to say how much is too much?”

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