County probes cost of death penalty cases before $1.6 million transfer

Faced with spending almost $2 million more for private attorneys to defend criminal suspects, Clark County officials on Tuesday lashed out again at the district attorney’s office for filing so many expensive death penalty cases.

County commissioners ultimately approved, 7-0, the transfer of $1.6 million from the county’s general fund to the Office of Appointed Counsel. That will bring the office’s annual budget to about $9.8 million.

Before they approved the amount, commissioners dissected the DA’s record of death penalty case filings.

Commissioner Steve Sisolak grilled Assistant County Manager Jeff Wells, who oversees court spending, to eke out information about the cost of county death penalty cases. Wells said the county spends six times more to defend death penalty cases, about $250,000, versus about $40,000 for non-death penalty cases.

About 80 defendants in the county court system face pending death penalty trials. By comparison, Los Angeles County, which has five times the population of Clark County, has only 33 pending cases.

The Office of Appointed Counsel hires private attorneys to represent defendants for a variety of reasons. The office takes about 4,500 cases a year. Currently, 47 of its cases are open death penalty or murder cases, Wells said. Those cases take up about 40 to 60 percent of the appointed counsel’s budget.

What set off commissioners was the fact that of 12 death penalty cases recently handled, just two resulted in death sentences. Despite that low number, the 12 cases still are expected to cost Clark County $250,000 each, or $3 million, instead of roughly $500,000 they would have cost if tried as non-death penalty cases.

“Can we set up a better screening (for death penalty cases)?” Sisolak said. “We’re the ones stuck having to pay the bills.”

The district attorney’s office has an internal committee, not open to the public, that determines which cases earn the “death penalty” label. Sisolak asked what would happen if the County Commission refused to pay the additional $1.6 million. “We are having to say no to some really hard things,” he said, rattling off elderly and other social services.

“You’re telling me, ‘Oh, that’s just the way it is.’”

Wells replied that there’s little leeway as state statutes set the hourly rate for contracted death penalty attorneys at $125, and legal requirements mandate public representation for indigent defendants.

“The buck really stops with the district attorney,” said Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani. “(This) costs us millions and millions of dollars, and we have to make a policy decision.”

To that end, more discussion of the district attorney’s handling of death penalty cases is expected to be added to the agendas of future County Commission meetings.

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