Trial defense costs slam Franklin County

By Geoff Folsom, Tri-City HeraldAugust 28, 2013 

Franklin County's costs for defending Tashia Stuart in her murder case are almost double the public defender's office budget for the entire year.

Stuart's defense is expected to cost a total of $180,000, said Eric Hsu, indigent defense coordinator for Franklin and Benton counties.

His office is budgeted for only $100,000 this year in Franklin County, he said.

Hsu has had to request two supplements in 2013 from the Franklin County commissioners as a result of the Stuart case. Last week, commissioners approved the transfer of $60,000 in contingency funds. They already agreed to an extra $50,000 in June.

"This is higher than some recent homicide cases that have been less complicated and have proceeded to trial relatively quickly, but less than others," Hsu said.

Stuart was convicted July 3 of killing her mother, Judy Hebert, 58, in Hebert's Pasco home in March 2011. She is awaiting sentencing.

Commissioner Brad Peck said he has gotten over the surprise of the high costs of some murder trials.

"We've had some extraordinarily high costs for defense in major cases the last few years," he said. "The cost of providing quality defense is high."

The county is able to request reimbursement for part of the defense costs from the state, Peck said.

"We've been fairly successful in getting some of that back," he said.

Commission Chairman Rick Miller said there are many unknowns in budgeting for murder trials, such as whether the defendant will make a plea bargain and how long it will take for the case to be heard if it does go to trial. That means the county has to budget for the "unknown."

Defense costs went up partly because one of Stuart's lawyers, Peter Connick, came in from Seattle, Miller said.

"When I wake up and hear there's a murder, I get nervous," Miller said. "Because I know it's a big cost to the taxpayers."

Cases that were more costly than Stuart's include the defense of Vicente Ruiz, who was convicted in December 2010 of killing five people in a Pasco auto body shop in 1987. Ruiz's case ended twice in mistrial. He was convicted after the trial was moved to Spokane. It ended up costing more than $800,000, according to Herald archives.

In Benton County, the trial of Phiengchai Sisouvanh Synhavong also was more expensive, Hsu said. She was convicted of stabbing Araceli Camacho Gomez, 27, to death in 2008 in Kennewick and stealing Gomez's unborn baby from her womb.

That case cost Benton County more than $300,000, according to Herald archives.

Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant said he expects his office to only have to pay between $15,000 and $16,000 for the Stuart case.

The prosecution only had to pay for a few hours of consulting time, he said. The biggest expense was for the services of Dr. Daniel Selove, a forensic pathologist from Everett who performed Hebert's autopsy. Selove made a trip to Pasco to testify. His costs included travel and an unexpected overnight stay because testimony ran long.

"I'd say that's pretty typical," Sant said. "Nothing jumped out as being higher than usual from our side."

-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; gfolsom@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom

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