Tennesseans spend millions hiring attorneys for poor defendants

WASHINGTON COUNTY, TN (WJHL) – Taxpayers in Northeast Tennessee spent $5.4 million over a three year period to hire attorneys for defendants who are not able to afford lawyers of their own, according to data from the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts.

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According to the state records, attorneys for indigent clients filed almost 14,000 claims for payments from July 2012 through June 2015 for almost 134,000 hours of work.

Howard Hawk Willis Still Costing Tennessee Post-Conviction

Convicted double-murderer Howard Hawk Willis, who currently sits on death row, cost the state more than any other defendant in Northeast Tennessee during that time. According to AOC data, four attorneys filed claims totaling $99,194 since 2012.

A Washington County jury found Willis guilty in 2010 for the murders of newlyweds Adam and Samantha Chrismer. Investigators found the teenagers’ dismembered bodies at a Johnson City storage facility. His indigent counsel filed claims for 1,410 hours, which is the equivalent of an attorney working on his case 24/7 for almost 59 days.

Constitutional Right

Whenever a defendant is unable to afford to hire his or her own attorney the Constitution requires the government appoint a lawyer for him or her.

“There are rulings by both the Tennessee Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court that indigent defendants are entitled to representation,” Washington County Sessions Court Judge Don Arnold said.

At the beginning of every hearing Judge Arnold reminds defendants of their rights. By the end of an average hearing the judge says roughly 75 percent of all defendants will receive court-appointed representation.

It doesn’t take much to secure indigent counsel. Defendants just have to fill out a form, swear they’re telling the truth and then convince the judge.

Judge Arnold said just because someone says they can’t afford an attorney doesn’t mean he’ll appoint one. He knows taxpayers are paying for people’s defense, so he said he doesn’t award attorneys to anyone who asks.

“I’m accused of being tough on appointing lawyers or public defenders for people because I look at whether or not people work,” he said. “I don’t feel like the taxpayers ought to pay for representation fully or bear the full burden of legal representation for people that go out and commit crimes against society and do not work or try to take care of their own debts when they’re capable of doing that.”

Homicide Cases Cost The Most

In addition to the Willis case, the other four most expensive cases were all highly publicized homicide cases.

According to AOC records, attorney claims for Justin Stratton, convicted of a 2011 Washington County murder, cost just under $13,000. Meanwhile, Jawaune Massey, found guilty of the 2005 execution-style candle shop murders in Kingsport, cost just under $13,000 as well.

An appointed attorney made a difference in the case of one of Massey’s co-defendants. A Sullivan County jury found Leslie Ware not guilty of first-degree murder. Instead, jurors found him guilty of only lesser charges. Ware’s representation cost just under $23,000, according to the AOC.

Ware’s case wasn’t the only one where indigent counsel made a difference.

Steven Rollins’ attorney helped save his life. After years on death row the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the murder conviction of Rollins. The 2001 Kingsport bait shop killer pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, but this time a judge sentenced him to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

According to AOC claims, the Rollins case cost more than $26,000 since mid-2012.

Attorney Gene Scott often helps with death penalty cases, because he says those clients deserve it.

“It’s important that these people have representation and I think it’s important that they have an experienced lawyer to do it,” Scott said.

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Defendants Accused Of Petty Crimes Receive Representation Too

Attorney Bill McManus filed 458 claims for more than $87,000 since mid-2012, according to AOC records. After practicing law in Florida as a public defender he returned to Northeast Tennessee.

McManus said accepting indigent cases was the best way for him to help defendants and reestablish his practice.

“It’s the basis of what I do,” he said of his business. “I’m still trying to establish myself here. You have to kind of get established with the judges and let the district attorney’s office know you. Everybody deserves a good defense and my job is not to get the person off, it’s to make sure that they’re treated fairly by the state.”

New attorney Scott Shults said indigent representation is a first step in practicing law, but also an important step in the justice system.

“I’m happy to do that, especially because when you’re the defendant the deck is stacked and the chips are down,” he said. “The state has a lot of resources and a lot of these people don’t. The bedrock of this nation’s legal system is the presumption of innocence. Sure, there’s some money in indigent defense, but there’s also a source of pride to try to stand up for what our country holds so dear.”

Lawmaker Says Indigent Costs Are Too High

According to the AOC, the state budgets $30 million every year for indigent defendants across Tennessee.

Rep. Jon Lundberg thinks there are ways the state can reduce the cost.

“It’s too much,” he said. “I think there’s a due diligence where a judge could question a little bit more to see if someone’s indigent.”

The lawmaker filed legislation last season that would have required the study of the appointment of indigent defense attorneys, but the legislation didn’t move forward. Although he trusts many judges ask the right questions, he says he’d like to see them ask even more questions before appointing attorneys.

“We’ve got to step that up somehow,” Lundberg said. “Whether it’s encouraging our judges to go a little further and ask a couple more questions. You don’t have to take 20 to 30 minutes per person. Questioning them, ‘Who pays your cable bill? Who pays your cell phone bill? Who brought you here?'”

A Pitiful Situation

Back in Judge Arnold’s courtroom, he thinks the public needs to be aware of the cost of court-appointed attorneys.

“It’s a pitiful situation to sit up there and look at the poor people that are involved in the system,” he said. “It’s unfortunate, but it’s just a mark of our society I suppose.”

The judge said he knows the value of taxpayers’ money and pledges to keep asking tough questions.

In some cases, judges make defendants pay for a portion of their indigent defense, but it never amounts to much. According to the AOC, the yearly amount equals roughly $225,000.

Scott agrees the dollar figures are staggering.

“It is a high number for the taxpayers to have to bear and, unfortunately, taxpayers are bearing the cost of a lot people’s mistakes, but at the same time people are entitled to be represented,” he said. “If a person is able to pay a bail bondsman to get out of jail they should be able to hire their own attorney, too.”

Other Changes On The Horizon?

Attorneys like McManus argue the state needs to do more to fairly pay attorneys for representing indigent clients. He said court-appointed attorneys in federal court make significantly more money.

According to AOC Communications Director Michele Wojciechowski, appointed attorneys earn $40 per hour for work outside of the courtroom and $50 per hour for time spent in court in Tennessee.

She said there are also caps on the amounts indigent counsel can earn per case. As it stands, attorneys are capped at 2,000 hours every year, according to the AOC.

Some lawmakers filed legislation this year that would increase the amount the state pays indigent attorneys. The proposed legislation would increase the $50 for every courtroom hour fee to $75 an hour.

Copyright 2016 WJHL. All rights reserved.

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