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Funds OK’d for public defenders

Suing not needed as commissioners will provide funds for death penalty cases, chief public defender says.

Russin

WILKES-BARRE – Luzerne County’s public defenders won’t have to sue to get the money they need to handle death-penalty cases.

Chief Public Defender Basil Russin said he met recently with county commissioners to discuss the funds he said his office needs but was not receiving from the county.

And the commissioners assured him his office will be funded, he said.

“That should not be an issue,” he said.

It’s not a set amount, he said.

“As we need money, they’ll fund us,” he said.

The funding issue surfaced at a January hearing regarding outstanding bills in a past case.

That’s where First Assistant Public Defender Al Flora Jr. revealed the office is allotted $32,000 per year in county funds to hire experts for capital cases.

Meanwhile, the District Attorney’s Office is allotted $220,000 and the court system is allotted $320,000 for the same purpose.

It was unfair, Russin had said. And if it wasn’t corrected, it could lead to additional costs if defendants’ convictions are reversed on appeal and given a second trial, Flora has said.

A judge suggested Russin might have to sue the commissioners to ensure his office is properly funded.

That’s now been averted, he said.

His office already has one capital case to handle this year and could end up with several more if prosecutors seek the death penalty in other cases.

The $32,000 likely would not have been enough to handle one case. But once Russin gets the money promised from commissioners, his office will be able to handle that case, and any others.

Last year’s homicide trial for double-killer William Rohland sparked the issue. Prosecutors unsuccessfully sought the death penalty in the case.

Rohland was represented by public defenders. They relied on county funds to obtain experts to defend Rohland. Two of those experts testified during the penalty phase.

But Russin’s office had previously used all the money it is allotted to pay experts. That forced them to ask Court of Common Pleas Judge Peter Paul Olszewski Jr. to order the county controller to pay them.

But Olszewski questioned the bills and called a hearing on them. In court, Flora and Russin told Olszewski about the lack of funding from the county. Olszewski said it might be appropriate for the public defenders to sue the commissioners.

Flora said if Olszewski kept questioning experts’ bills, the public defenders would lose their ability to retain the experts. And without such experts, a defendant would not be adequately represented, as required by law. Then, if a defendant is convicted, an appellate court could reverse the conviction based on the weak representation. That would force the county to have a retrial of the costly cases, the attorneys said.

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