Franklin Co. asks state to help pay for Ruiz trial

PASCO — Franklin County is asking the state Legislature to pay $373,000 in costs billed so far to defend convicted murderer Vicente Ruiz, and more is expected.

While not all bills are in yet, county officials believe the cost of Ruiz’s two murder trials in 2010 will be somewhat less than expected.

But with the tab expected to top $463,000, it still is more than the county can afford without state help.

The money the county is asking the state for would pay for Ruiz’s legal fees, interpreters, juries and travel for the two trials.

Although his third trial ended Dec. 22 when a Spokane jury found Ruiz guilty of killing five men and attempting to kill another in 1987, about two-thirds of the public defense bills from that trial have yet to be received.

It could take another month before all bills are in.

So far, the county has spent about $148,000 on the third trial, according to county documents.

Public defense costs, including attorneys fees, witness and attorney travel and an investigator likely will be close to $153,000 for the Spokane trial, said Eric Hsu, coordinator of the bicounty Office of Public Defense.

Those outstanding defense bills might bring the Spokane trial to $238,000, and the total cost for the two 2010 trials to $463,000. County officials earlier had estimated the cost would be closer to $485,000.

The third trial ended weeks earlier than officials’ worst-case scenario, which Hsu called “a welcome surprise.”

Employees also tried to keep expenses as low as they could, said Pat Austin, bicounty Superior Court administrator.

Ruiz was sentenced Jan. 20 to five life terms and another 20 years in prison. He was the second man convicted in the slayings at Medina’s Body Shop in Pasco 23 years ago.

His cousin, Pedro Mendez-Reyna, is in prison for life for his role.

Ruiz’s first trial in 2008 ended in a mistrial. His second trial started in April 2010 but also ended in a mistrial when it was discovered the defense hadn’t received some Pasco police files.

In July, the judge granted a defense motion to move the third trial to Spokane because of concerns about being able to seat an unbiased jury in Franklin County.

Prosecuting Ruiz has cost Franklin County about $578,000 since 2007, and might reach $668,000 if estimates for remaining bills are accurate.

The majority of expenses have been from the Office of Public Defense, and most of the $272,000 spent so far by that office last year was for attorney fees.

Each of Ruiz’s three attorneys received $1,000 per day during the Spokane trial, Hsu said.

Most of the $29,213 spent on professional services for the third trial was for paying the interpreter, Austin said. Ruiz had to be able to understand what was said during the trial and to talk to his attorneys.

Jury payment costs for the third trial were about $11,700, Austin said.

Travel to Spokane and per diem cost the county about $43,158. That includes travel for a county clerk, judge, court reporter, bailiff and the prosecutor’s office.

Prosecutor’s office travel, which was about $26,400, included travel and per diem for two attorneys and a support staffer. It also included airfare and mileage reimbursement for witnesses, said Kelly Schadler, prosecuting attorney’s office administrator. She said travel expenses for one witness haven’t been received yet.

The county has asked the state to pay for the Ruiz trial costs through the state’s Extraordinary Criminal Justice Process. That allows the county to request reimbursement for costs connected to public defense, investigation, prosecution, jury, interpreters, expert witnesses and incarceration in aggravated murder cases.

Reimbursement wouldn’t cover prosecutor salaries, which the county has to pay no matter what cases the attorneys work.

The state Office of Public Defense will make a recommendation to the Legislature, but it’s up to the Legislature to decide if the county will get funding.

The county has asked the state to accept the county’s 2010 costs up to those received by Friday. The deadline for November and December costs to be considered for 2011 funding was Jan. 7.

Hsu said the county hasn’t heard yet if those bills will be included in the total the Legislature will consider covering.

The county wants the largest chunk of costs to be considered together because one factor in the funding process is how large a percentage the court costs represent of the county’s budget.

Any bills paid after Friday will be submitted at the end of this year for possible reimbursement in 2012. But Hsu said that depends on whether the Extraordinary Criminal Justice process still exists.

Even those latest bills won’t be the last that taxpayers will pay for Ruiz’s defense.

His attorneys have filed a notice of an appeal and asked for an attorney from an authorized appellate law firm in Seattle to be appointed.

Appeal costs won’t come from county coffers, though. Hsu said the state pays for appeals.