Franklin County dips into reserves to pay for trials, autopsies

Franklin County commissioners again dipped their hands into the county's savings to pay for autopsies and murder trial expenses.

The commissioners on Wednesday unanimously approved using $100,000 of their reserves for costs related to the upcoming trial of Vicente Ruiz, which has been moved to Spokane.

The county has used its reserves and some contingency dollars built into the 2010 budget to pay for public defense costs related to the trial.

Professional services such as nonroutine attorney fees, investigators, expert witnesses, medical records and transcriptions are expected to cost more than $500,000 this year. Only $100,000 was budgeted for those expenses.

Ruiz is charged with five counts of aggravated first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder in the 1987 Medina's Body Shop murders.

Ruiz first went on trial in 2008 but it ended in a mistrial. His second trial started in April with jury selection but in July the judge granted a defense motion to try the case in a new venue because of extensive media coverage of the 23-year-old case and concerns that the court would not be able to seat an unbiased Franklin County jury.

His third trial is scheduled to start Nov. 9 in Spokane.

The county's latest transfer brings a reserve fund that started the year at $638,000 down to $167,000, said county Administrator Fred Bowen.

The county has used about $571,000 of its reserves and contingency dollars to pay for trial-related costs, he said.

Eric Hsu, coordinator for the bicounty office of public defense, said the transfers into the public defense budget have been used for more than just the Ruiz trial.

The county also has four other murder trials pending as well as routine costs.

It won't take long for the Spokane trial to consume the $167,000 that is left, said commission Chairman Brad Peck.

Commissioners are planning to ask the state for help paying for the murder trial costs. The state has an extraordinary murder trial fund that it uses to help pay for trials where the charges include first-degree murder or aggravated murder, Bowen said.

The commissioners also unanimously agreed to use $12,000 of unrestricted reserves to pay for autopsies for the rest of the year.

That uses up the last of the $150,000 contingency that was built into the 2010 budget, Bowen said. And $6,000 will come from the county's reserves.

Coroner Dan Blasdel said he already has spent about $23,000 on autopsies so far this year.

The coroner's office has been averaging about six autopsies each quarter, he said. And there have been two autopsies this quarter.

The rate of autopsies has been higher this year, he said.

"It's one of those things that you have no control over," Blasdel said.

Blasdel had $17,000 in his budget for autopsies for 2010.

The county had budgeted $25,000 for autopsies in previous years, and spent about $24,000 in 2008 and 2009.