PASCO -- Costs to help attorneys defend five suspected killers could reach $500,000 this year, straining Franklin County's already tight budget.
Fees for mental evaluations, private investigators and expert witnesses for criminal defendants are five times what commissioners had expected to spend this year. Specifics of what costs are included in the $500,000 estimate have not been released.
The case of accused killer Vicente Ruiz already has topped the county's overall anticipated 2010 budget of $100,000 for "professional services" expenses, and the tab continues to grow as he faces a third trial in August.
To cover the deficit, county commissioners on Wednesday unanimously approved transferring $100,000 from reserves for the defense costs.
They previously took $100,000 out of a contingency fund for unexpected trial costs, but still need about $150,000.
Commission Chairman Brad Peck said if the trial costs continue to rise, the county will have to make severe cuts or raise taxes.
"These are legally mandated expenses," he said. "I don't see that we do have any option."
Ruiz, 45, is charged with the 1987 shooting deaths of five men inside Medina's Body Shop.
His second trial on five counts of aggravated first-degree murder and one count of first-degree attempted murder ended in a mistrial June 22. Judge Cameron Mitchell ruled that stacks of police reports the defense never received could be favorable to Ruiz, and granted lawyers two months to investigate the new evidence.
Ruiz's first attempt at trial ended before the jury even was picked in 2008 to allow further DNA tests on a straw hat in evidence.
The next trial is set for Aug. 23.
Ruiz's three lawyers haven't yet said if they will request moving the trial out of Franklin County. However, they are trying to block the release of records showing how much they've spent on the defense in the last 18 months, claiming in a motion that the "dissemination of indigent defense costs will destroy any remaining possibility of a fair trial in Franklin County."
After the second mistrial was declared, the Herald requested defense costs from the Office of Public Defense for Benton and Franklin counties specifically for the Ruiz case dating back to January 2009.
The request through Eric Hsu, indigent defense coordinator, was for attorneys' fees, investigators' fees, expert fees and expenses relating to travel, lodging and food. The Herald agreed to take a summary of the records to show what the case is costing taxpayers.
Hsu said he customarily provides lawyers on pending criminal cases with 14 days notice to either waive the notice or "to seek a protective order from the court if they deem it necessary to protect the rights of their clients."
Ruiz's lawyers objected to the request and days later served the Herald with a "motion to seal defense indigent records or protective order at least until trial is over."
Lawyer Peter Connick of Seattle said the release of the records could bring the threat of "substantial and irreparable harm" to Ruiz's constitutional rights.
"The media has complained about the costs of trial in Franklin County and specifically named Ruiz as one case that has caused Franklin County a cost problem," Connick said in the motion. "It is the defense belief that disclosure of indigent defense costs will further poison any jury pool that has not been tainted already (if that's possible to do)."
The issue tentatively is set to be argued July 29 in Franklin County Superior Court.
On Wednesday, County Administrator Fred Bowen told commissioners that the county already has spent $134,000 this year on defense professional service costs for the Ruiz trial.
Bowen added that the new trial may cost the county just as much or more -- especially if it is moved to another venue -- bringing the overall professional services expenses for all five murder cases up to $500,000.
If Ruiz's trial is held in another county, Franklin County still would pay trial costs, which would be increased by travel expenses, housing and meals for county staff, Bowen said.
Four other murder trials also are contributing to the projected defense costs.
The two trials of brothers Jose and Ramon Garcia-Morales are estimated to cost $60,000.
Jose, 26, and Ramon, 30, are accused of killing Alfredo Garcia and seriously wounding his wife, Maria Ramirez de Garcia, in December 2008. Both have been charged with first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder.
The trial of Kurtis Robert Chapman, 22, is estimated to cost $21,500.
He has been charged with second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter and faces trial Oct. 20 for allegedly killing 19-year-old Shenay Greenough and her unborn baby, Kyana.
Gregorio Luna Luna, 31, is accused of fatally stabbing his ex-girlfriend, Griselda Ocampo Meza.
His trial on one count of first-degree murder, tentatively set for Aug. 4, also is estimated to cost $21,500.
Commissioner Bob Koch said the board needs to continue to let state representatives know the county's need for assistance with the trial costs.
Even if the state reimburses the county, it at most would be 60 percent of the trial cost, added Peck.
"It's going to be a difficult year," he said.
The county already cut $788,000 midway through 2009 and eliminated $1.5 million more in expenses for the 2010 budget after sales tax revenues dropped.
After Wednesday's transfer, the reserve fund now is at $1.35 million.
-- Kristi Pihl: 509-582-1512; firstname.lastname@example.org