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Lawsuit: indigent defendants not fairly represented

by Jesse Fruhwirth
- Posted // 2011-02-04 -

A new federal lawsuit claims Weber County prosecutors' resources are so much greater than public defenders' resources that indigent defendants' right to a fair trial is being subverted.

The lawsuit (see the complaint below) filed Feb. 2 in U.S. District Court for the District of Utah was filed by Ogden attorney Michael Studebaker on behalf of Frank Williams, an indigent Weber County defendant facing drug charges.

The lawsuit details the expansions in the Weber County Attorney's office budget even as the Weber County Public Defenders Association was disbanded after 40 years in existence. The Standard-Examiner reported in 2009 that the county disbanded the organization and shifted to fixed-price contracts with attorneys to represent indigent defendants in a hope to save about $100,000 from the defenders then $1.3 million budget.

According to the lawsuit, the county has set aside $966,800 for indigent criminal defense in 2011, but the Weber County Attorneys office--which handles both criminal and civil suits--receives a budget of more than $2.2 million.

The lawsuit claims the disparity is getting worse.

Between 2009 and 2010 the [Weber County] cut $193,593 from its public defender budget. Between 2009 and 2010 [Weber County} added $121,242 to the Weber County Attorney's budget. Based on the numbers outlined herein, it appears [Weber County] just shifted any money allegedly to the Weber County Attorney's Office.

Amendments 6 and 14 of the U.S. Constitution guarantee every Americans' right to legal counsel if they can not afford their own. Studebaker cites the U.S. Supreme Court case McMann v. Richardson (1970) to support his argument that the right to indigent defense "requires effective assistance of competent counsel." Utah ranks 48th out of 50 states in its per capita funding of indigent defense, the lawsuit states.

[Weber County has] failed to set such standards for the provisions of indigent defenders, or to exercise any supervision to ensure that county indigent defense programs provides constitutionally adequate legal representation. [Weber County does] not require that the public defenders are hired on merit, train them in criminal defense, issue written practice standards, or monitor or limit excessive workloads. [Weber County] underfund[s] its indigent defense services to the point where the lack of financial resources impedes the delivery of representation.

Money for indigent defendants was also at issue at a Utah Supreme Court hearing yesterday. The Salt Lake Legal Defenders office argued their funding is not an open bank account for private attorneys to hire a medical expert, investigator or mitigation expert for their clients who can afford a private lawyer, but not the additional expenses of experts.

Studebaker has experience in this area. Though he was hired as a private attorney, he nevertheless tapped Davis County's public defender budget for a medial expert and other costs in the trail against Edward Lewis Owens, who was nevertheless convicted of murder in 2009.

Complaints about funding for public defenders in Utah is perennial. In 2008, a disorganized strike by Utah defense attorneys left convicted murder Robert Cameron Houston--the first and only juvenile in Utah to be sentenced to life in prison without parole--without an attorney to handle his appeal, which he is guaranteed by the Constitution. In reaction, Utah Indigent Defense Fund overseers increased the pay rate for such appeals and an attorney was hired.

But that state fund does not pay public defenders at the trial level. That's left the counties. Thus, that's why the lawsuit is suing the Weber County Commissioners and the county itself.

Studebaker claims that the plaintiff Frank Williams has been largely ignored by his publicly funded attorney. The lawsuit seeks special and punitive damages "in an amount to be determined at trial" and also remedies the problems listed in the complaint.

Utah public defenders civil rights lawsuit
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