High Crimes Impact DA, Public Defender Budgets

January 4, 2013

DA-elect George Brauchler wants county commissioners in Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties to cut $30,000 from his salary and redirect it to prosecuting James Holmes

AURORA– In contrast to government officials asking for salary increases, 18th Judicial District Attorney-elect George Brauchler wants county commissioners in Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties to cut $30,000 from his $160,000 salary.

Brauchler said he’d like to redirect the money to prosecuting James Holmes, who is charged with killing 12 people and wounding 58 others during themidnightshowing of “The Dark Knight Rises” in an Aurora theater on July 20, 2012.

Though Brauchler won’t be sworn into office until Jan. 7, he successfully negotiated the budget adjustment with county commissioners last month. By state statute, district attorneys are paid $130,000 from the General Fund, and counties may add compensation.

When the Arapahoe County Commissioners agreed, Brauchler said they showed “tremendous leadership and foresight in protecting the community from future crime. Together we have all chosen to prioritize victims’ needs and direct funds towards these cases.”

Also looming on the horizon for Brauchler and his prosecution team are continuous court appeals filed by convicted murderers Nathan Dunlap, Robert Ray and Sir Mario Owens, all sentenced to death by lethal injections.

State Rep. Rhonda Fields’ son Javad “Jay” Marshall-Fields had witnessed the killing of his friend Gregory Vann in Lowry Park in July 2004. Ray was charged with the murder. Marshall-Fields was scheduled to testify in court, but he and his fiancée Vivian Wolfe were killed in an ambush in June 2005.

Ray and Owens were convicted of the murders, and Parish Carter was sentenced to 70 years for conspiracy in the slaying of Marshall-Fields to prevent him from testifying.

Rep. Fields (D-Aurora) told reporters that the men responsible for the death of her son “should receive the maximum penalty.”

Some political observers expect Democrats who control both houses of the legislature to consider a proposal to ban the death penalty this year – after coming within one vote of doing so in 2009.   Fields, however, has suggested that the question should be settled by state voters.

Dunlap was sentenced to death row for killing four people at Chuck E. Cheese’s pizza parlor in Aurora in 1996. His attorneys have unsuccessfully appealed the conviction, but still pending is an appeal filed with the United States Supreme Court.

Brauchler, whose annual budget is $12.1 million, isn’t the only one concerned about budgeting for the Holmes case and ensuing appeals.

State Public Defender Douglas Wilson has asked the Joint Budget Committee to add $11.1 million to his $71.8 million budget in FY 2013-14. Wilson wants higher salaries to retain experienced public defenders and hire new attorneys, and to cover operation shortfalls.

“The average district attorney makes about $148,000 a year – my comparable office heads make $105, 000,” said Wilson of his key attorneys in jurisdictions around the state. “The single most important and critical issue facing our agency is our salary deficits.”

Wilson said that his staff attorneys are paid 18 percent below governmental market rate in Colorado, and because of that the state Public Defender Office now has 56 percent entry level and 44 percent experienced level attorneys.

“I’m losing lawyers left and right,” said Wilson. “As a result of school loans (to be repaid), most, if not all, of my hires are 26 year olds who want to start a family or buy a house or sometimes just buy a car – and they can’t do it on $49,000 a year.”

“I have 800 resumes this year – it is off the charts!” declared Wilson. But though he described the law school grads as “dedicated to being public defenders,” Wilson predicted they too would leave after a couple of years.

JBC Vice Chair state Rep. Claire Levy (D-Boulder) said a lot of law school graduates want to work as public defenders but not as a career.

“It’s the best place to get trial experience,” said Levy. “They don’t stay because, as you point out, they want to start a family or can’t afford things. And they want to repay their student loans.”

“There is certainly a percentage of folks who come in and want trial experience,” conceded Wilson. “But that is not what is going on. People are leaving because they cannot afford to stay.”

“It looks like you have a number of attorneys at the top level that somehow made it through that hump,” said Levy.

Wilson’s proposed budget is still under debate pending more specific data, but the experienced public defenders seem to be performing quite well.

Tamara Brady and Daniel King, two of the public defenders representing Holmes, argued in December that their client’s right to privacy was violated when correspondence was leaked to a Fox News reporter – and therefore take the death penalty off the sentencing menu.

“These Colorad opublic defenders are dedicated to keeping Holmes alive, and extra hearings and delays are always good,” wrote Craig Silverman, former radio talk show co-host with Dan Caplis, both attorneys.

“Who might have done this?” mused Silverman. “It’s like a bad Agatha Christie murder mystery play in this Colorado courtroom. Who was in the mailroom at the Anschutz Medical Center who could have possibly done such a dastardly thing?”

More seriously, Silverman said that if Arapahoe County District Judge William Sylvester does rule there was government misconduct, the defense team will hope it starts a domino-effect of errors.

“These public defenders, and their allies in the abolish capital punishment movement, well know the stakes,” said Silverman. “If Holmes does not get the death penalty, who can?”

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