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Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2006 02:46 pm

You're screwed

Power of prosecutors grows as defense resources wither

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Your insurance policy got canceled last month. Didn’t receive your notice in the mail? Me neither. I just happened to stumble across it recently while doing some research.

The good news is, you’ll probably never, ever need this insurance. The bad news is that it’s kinda like an earthquake rider — a safety net you won’t appreciate unless and until something unforeseen, unthinkable, and cataclysmic happens. If you do need it and you don’t have it, you are, frankly, screwed.

It’s called the Rural Public Defense Services Fund and you porbably haven’t heard of it unless you’ve had the singular experience of tinkling in a stainless-steel jail potty. The fund — back when it had money in it — could provide assistance to anyone accused of a crime outside Cook County.

You think such a thing couldn’t happen to you? Or your kid? Your nephew? Your friend? Well, here’s something to think about next time you have a spat with the spouse:

Guy and his gal get into a shouting match. Their neighbors call the cops. Guy leaves. A few nights later, the gal turns up dead, her corpse burned to a crisp inside their trailer home. When the cops discover that the woman’s skull has been fractured, they conclude that she’s been beaten, and the ex-boyfriend — a blue-collar laborer with a low IQ — becomes their No. 1 suspect. They charge him with murder.

He lucks out when his court-appointed attorney hires a forensics expert to review the evidence. Turns out, the gal hadn’t been beaten at all. She died of smoke inhalation, and (skip this part if you’re eating breakfast) the bones of her skull simply separated along the natural suture lines in the intense heat of the trailer fire. The only crime committed was stupidity: Either the gal or perhaps someone she met at a bar that night had fallen asleep smoking a cigarette.

I’m not making this stuff up. The gruesome tale above happened in a tiny Illinois town called Wolf Lake in July 2003.

God forbid it should ever happen to you, because now there would be no bucks for the expert, unless the crime ranks high enough on the meter o’ evil to warrant the death penalty. Then you could tap into the Capital Litigation Trust Fund, which would guarantee you a pair of qualified lawyers happy to work for $140 an hour, plus money for investigators and experts, their travel expenses, and other incidentals.

However, if the prosecutor decides, “Eh, what the heck — let’s just ask for a really long prison sentence,” then you suddenly become David up against a gazillion Goliaths. You may be facing the local state’s attorney, or he may call in extra lawyers from the attorney general’s office or the Office of the State’s Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor. They have investigators and experts already on the payroll — all manner of law-enforcement officers, crime-lab employees, and medical examiners.

You, on the other hand, would have a public defender — and that’s it.

Brian Otwell, chief public defender here in Sangamon County, says that his annual budget for investigators and experts is a measly $25,000.
“It is never enough, obviously. The routine fitness examinations for people with mental-health histories and psychiatric issues normally sucks that up,” Otwell says.

Should he need extra legal brainpower, the Office of the State Appellate Defender can’t help. Unlike the SAAP’s menagerie of “special prosecutors,” OSAD has no parallel complement of attorneys. I mean, think about it: Have you ever heard of a “special defender”?

Maybe you think this disparity is common. It’s not. Just ask Ed Parkinson, the special prosecutor who recently retried Julie Rea Harper. He tells me he doesn’t know of another state with “special prosecutors.” In the other 49 states, prosecutors who need help rely on the attorney general’s office. “They do same thing with much bigger staff,” Parkinson says.

Ron Safer, one of Harper’s attorneys and a former chief federal prosecutor himself, suggests that SAAPs, who are not elected officials, simply have too much power. “From my perspective, the reforms to the system should be aimed at ensuring that the prosecutors are accountable. Elected prosecutors are accountable,” Safer says. “The SAAPs are responsible to no one, best I can tell.”

The power of the SAAP office has mushroomed over the years, from a small commission handling drug forfeitures and tax objections into a phalanx of prosecutors governed only by a board of county prosecutors (Sangamon County’s John Schmidt is secretary of the board).

The resources available to defendants, meanwhile, have shrunk. The RPDS grant, previously financed by the state’s Criminal Justice Information Authority, was a paltry $250,000 per year. The only expenses eligible were investigators and experts — not lawyers. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing. It gave public defenders a way to help their most worthy clients — people, perhaps, just like me and you.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.

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