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Judge rules DA can subpoena state board

Last Modified: Wednesday, November 21, 2012 1:28 PM

By John Guidroz / American Press

Judge David Ritchie ruled on Tuesday that Calcasieu Parish District Attorney’s Office can issue two subpoenas asking the state Public Defender Board to release specific information on how it spends its money.

The subpoenas were based on the financial struggles facing the Calcasieu Public Defenders Office. The office is searching for funds to pay for expert witnesses in the case of Barbara Vincent, who is charged with second-degree murder in connection with the 2008 death of 5-year-old Savannah Vincent. The child was hospitalized with blunt force trauma to the head and died two days later.

Hugo Holland Jr., special assistant district attorney, said a lawyer may decide that an expert witness is needed to testify. But, he said, the PDO can’t afford expert witnesses and has even had to get some lawyers to handle cases for free.

“If the lawyer needs (money) to pay for an expert witness, and the public defender can’t pay for a lawyer fee, how is he supposed to pay for an expert,” Holland said.

The PDO — which is funded through state dollars and local court fees — had its state funding cut by $500,000 within one year, Holland said. He said the money the state Legislature appropriates for indigent defense has grown from $7.5 million in 2003, to $35 million this year — a 450 percent increase. The money is disbursed by the state Public Defender Board.

“Nobody has suggested there has been that kind of increase in the number of cases handled around the state, or (that) the quality of indigent defense has increased that much,” he said. “What are you doing with the (money)? That’s the issue.”

Jay Dixon, head of the Calcasieu PDO, told the American Press earlier this month that the budget is $1.8 million, but the PDO needs $2.4 million annually to “really operate effectively.” The PDO budget for this fiscal year was nearly $250,000 short, which lead to five attorneys being cut. Cases were given to members of the Southwest Louisiana Bar Association to be worked for free.

Despite the increase in overall state money, the local PDOs have never been adequately funded to deliver the level of legal representation required for certain cases, said Walt Sanchez, Dixon’s attorney. He said the state Legislature oversees how the board spends its money.

“There’s no (local) money unless people are convicted,” Sanchez said. “If (Dixon) is counting on traffic tickets, he doesn’t know how much he will get until he opens the envelope. The (Public Defender) Board can’t lobby for the true amount of money they need. The decision is made on political consideration, not case loads or rational decisions.”

Another subpoena involves non-profit organizations, which Holland said were created by people who are against capital punishment. He said the Public Defender Board has contracted with them to provide capital defense services around the state. This year, he said $9.3 million of the state money is going to seven non-profit organizations to handle “50 or less cases per year.”

Sanchez said some of the information requested in the subpoenas cannot be disclosed because it is tied to representing certain clients.

“Their subpoenas requested information protected by attorney-client privilege,” he said. “They are so broad. They wanted to know every expenditure of funds, and which client that expenditure was for. There’s a massive constitutional overlay that those subpoenas just ignore.”

Ritchie’s ruling calls for the subpoenas to be heard by the Third Circuit Court of Appeal to double check whether the local district attorney’s office can ask for that specific financial information. Sanchez said the funding issue should be heard in court in East Baton Rouge Parish — where the Public Defender Board is located.

The other defenders included attorneys Rudie Soileau, who represented the Public Defender Board; and Mark Cunningham, representing the non-profit agencies.

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