The cost of justice: Most expensive Clark County trials
Improving technology, and the need for experts to weigh in, drives costs in some cases
Sunday, March 25, 2012
Most expensive cases in 2010 and 2011
$98,388: Michael Hersh was convicted in April 2010 of first-degree murder in the 1978 murder of Vancouver resident Norma Simerly.
$70,853: Daylan Berg and Jeffery Reed were convicted by a jury in May 2011 of attempted murder of Vancouver police Officer Jay Alie.
$26,272: Michael Schuurmans, accused of fatally stabbing his sister, was acquitted by reason of insanity by a judge in March 2010.
$11,341: Roddy Kartchner of Vancouver was convicted by a jury in December 2010 of several Internet scams.
$9,022: Sheryl Martin was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced in November 2010 in the shooting of her husband.
Justice for Norma Simerly came 32 years after she was brutally stabbed to death at her home in Vancouver’s Lincoln neighborhood.
Like many homicide cases, there were dozens of witnesses, days of trial testimony and crucial physical evidence. Unlike others, though, the trial leading to killer Michael Hersh’s conviction relied on decades-old artifacts and witnesses from as far away as Arizona and the Deep South.
Cost in this unusual case? Nearly $100,000.
Hersh’s high-profile trial in 2010 for killing Simerly in 1978 was the county’s most expensive in recent years, according to statistics released by the prosecutor’s office and the indigent defense coordinator. It reflects a trend of the growing costs of justice.
While most cases handled by the 26-lawyer criminal division of the prosecutor’s office are less complicated, only requiring local witnesses and few experts, several high-profile cases a year tap into the county’s budget, costing upwards of $50,000. And it’s not just homicide cases.
As technology progresses and law becomes more specialized, more attorneys rely on costly expert witnesses to make their case.
“Case law has become more sophisticated,” said Denny Hunter, Clark County’s former longtime chief criminal deputy prosecutor. For instance, “They used to not allow voluntary intoxication to be a defense. Now, they do.”
With the array of defenses allowed at trial and increasing reliance on DNA evidence and ballistics testing, the need for expensive witnesses has become more prevalent.
An example of that was the 2010 trial of two Portland men charged with shooting a Vancouver police officer. A button manufacturer from Connecticut hopped on a plane bound for the West Coast, spent hours in the air, stayed overnight in a hotel and had his meals on Clark County’s dime.
His role was to identify a shattered button as having come from the uniform of Officer Jay Alie. The button expert was on the stand less than an hour at trial. His time cost the Clark County Prosecutor’s Office $1,351.
Other experts are just as specialized, including neuropsychologists and forensic psychologists.
“We started to need really specialty experts,” said Vancouver defense attorney Jeff Sowder, who represented Hersh. “We need experts to refute testimony of other experts. The scientific aspects of the case have become more complicated.”
Still, Clark County Prosecutor Tony Golik says that trial expenses have stayed relatively consistent over the past few years, though homicide cases boost overall expenditures because of the higher number of witnesses and days needed to litigate the case.
“It’s like homicides. Some years there are a lot. Some years, there’s not,” Golik said. “Some years, we’re going to have more expensive years, more costly trials. We’ve been fortunate this biennium that we haven’t had that situation.” The year 2010 was unusual in that it racked up $66,052 in expenses for travel and lodging for witnesses and to pay for expert witnesses, compared with just $17,549 for witnesses in 2011.
The Hersh case drove up the 2010 overall costs, Golik said.
Attorneys not only had to pay DNA experts from throughout the country to review the Hersh case and travel here to testify, they had to round up more than a dozen other witnesses who had since moved away from Clark County. They included an investigator who now lives in Arizona.
But cases like that of Hersh don’t come around often, Golik said.
Here’s a list of the most expensive criminal court cases over the past three years. They take into account travel, food, lodging and expert witness costs as well as the amount paid to appoint defense attorneys and the defense witness costs. They do not include the salary of deputy prosecutors, as that amount is part of a separate budget of the prosecutor’s office. Overtime also isn’t included, as deputy prosecutors’ pay is salaried, not hourly.
The April 2010 trial of Hersh that resulted in his conviction on first-degree murder charges was by far the most expensive for Clark County in recent years, at $98,388.
Of that number, only $10,426 went toward the prosecution; the remaining amount went to pay for Hersh’s defense attorney because Hersh was indigent and could not afford his own attorney. Attorneys appointed for homicide cases are paid significantly more than for lesser crimes.
At the time prosecutors filed charges in 2008, Vancouver’s crime lab did not perform testing on the type of evidence, mitochondrial DNA, that was recovered from the crime scene in 1978. So they had to send the evidence to a lab in Texas.
Since the DNA was the state’s platform evidence, attorney Sowder also had the case looked at by an outside DNA expert. Both sides’ expert witnesses, including travel, cost nearly $64,000.
The kicker of the trial was rounding up witnesses from 1978 -- neighbors and police officers -- who have since moved away.
“This is what happens when you have a 30-year-old case with no confessions,” Sowder said.
The effort paid off. After being convicted, Hersh was sentenced April 23, 2010, to 33 years in prison.
Jeffery Reed and Daylan Berg
The county’s second most expensive case, at $70,853, was the May 2010 trial of the two Portland men who shot Vancouver police Officer Jay Alie.
Driving up the cost was the fact that the men’s defense attorneys required the state to prove every piece of evidence. In some trials, defense attorneys will stipulate to certain basic evidence, such as agreeing that the taped 911 call is reliable.
But since the case involved the shooting of a police officer -- even though he did not suffer serious injuries -- “everything gets looked at from every angle,” Golik said.
That meant attorneys had to pay for specialized witnesses to examine bullets and potential DNA evidence. The state identified one of the shooters by matching a bullet from the scene as having come from a gun found on Berg when he was arrested.
However, the defense contended the car used by the shooters to flee should be examined for any DNA evidence. No such evidence was found.
Still, a jury convicted Berg and Reed of numerous charges and they were sentenced on Sept. 3, 2010, to 62 years in prison each.
Schuurmans, charged with first-degree murder for stabbing his sister, did not go to trial. He underwent an insanity hearing because his defense attorney contended he could not understand right from wrong.
His mental evaluations and the insanity hearing in early 2010 still cost the county $26,272, making it the third most expensive case. Prosecutors did not agree with Western State Hospital doctors who decided Schuurmans was legally insane, so they had to hire an outside expert (normally, subpoenaing state hospital doctors as witnesses doesn’t cost the county anything). In this case, it cost $5,475.
Defense attorney Tom Phelan relied on state-paid experts. His tab for expert testimony only included $322 for travel.
Ultimately, a judge sided with the defense, ruling Schuurmans was insane for stabbing his sister because he thought he was God and she was Satan. The decision acquitted Schuurmans of the murder charge, meaning it was not decided by a jury. He was ordered on March 22, 2010, to be confined indefinitely at the state hospital.
Theft and laundering charges aren’t normally cases that rack up high trial costs. But Kartchner’s case in December 2010 involved a number of victims throughout the country, who all had to be flown in to testify at trial.
Travel costs made this case, at $11,341, the fourth most expensive case for the county.
The case related to a real estate developer, Kartchner, who had signed on to get-rich-fast schemes on the Internet, similar to Nigerian scams, and was soliciting loans from people over the Web. A surgeon from California and witnesses from Connecticut and North Carolina came to testify at the Clark County trial.
Kartchner had been accused of either forging checks in these people’s name or unlawfully wiring money from their bank account.
In total, travel for out-of-town witnesses cost $6,516.
Charged with 17 criminal counts, Kartchner was convicted of 12 of them and was sentenced Dec. 17, 2010, to 3 years in prison.
When Martin, a Ridgefield wife who shot her husband after finding out he had been having an affair, presented the unique “betrayal trauma theory” defense, prosecutors had to foot the bill to get a specialized expert.
The expert, Dr. Richard Packard, was hired for a pretrial hearing. He researched whether the theory, which contends being betrayed by a loved one can push a person into a psychotic state, was recognized by the scientific community. He testified at the special hearing that the theory was not widely recognized by psychologists. The testimony cost the prosecutor’s office $9,022.
Martin had retained her own attorney -- she did not need court-appointed counsel -- so there weren’t defense costs for the county.
Still, calling in a psychologist to perform hours of research for one case was not something the prosecutor’s office does every day. Chief Deputy Prosecutor John Fairgrieve, who handled Martin’s case, said he could not rely on an expert from Western State Hospital -- who would testify with no cost to the county -- because those experts chiefly perform mental health evaluations and nothing else.
“Western State doctors’ role is to evaluate patients, not to do independent research,” Fairgrieve said.
Packard’s testimony was not needed at Martin’s actual trial because a judge struck down the unusual defense. Martin was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced on Nov. 23, 2010, to 20 years in prison.