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Louisiana’s death penalty spending stays the course, despite public defense shakeup

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Louisiana’s death penalty spending stays the course, despite public defense shakeup

Jun 13, 2024 | 12:38 pm ET
By Julie O'Donoghue
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Louisiana’s death penalty spending stays the course, despite public defense shakeup
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Louisiana is likely to contract with Loyola University College of Law in New Orleans to handle death penalty cases. (Canva image)

Louisiana will continue to spend millions of dollars on private contracts with attorneys to represent people facing the death penalty, despite Gov. Jeff Landry’s high-profile overhaul of public defense management.

The newly formed Public Defender Oversight Board voted Wednesday to keep indigent defense operations largely similar to the way they function now. Its members overruled Landry’s handpicked State Public Defender Rémy Starns on two key issues – capital defense spending and district defender pay.

Landry and Starns pushed lawmakers in February to change public defense laws to empower Starns, as the state public defender, to have more control over the system. Public defenders represent more than 146,000 people per year, approximately 88% of all criminal defendants in the state.

At the governor’s urging, lawmakers agreed to dissolve a previous public defender board deemed too powerful and to reconstitute a new version that must show more deference to Starns. The new board, which met Wednesday, is still supposed to help him oversee a sprawling network of local public defender offices and more than 850 attorneys. 

But Starns is already running into roadblocks with the new oversight board much in the same way he did with its predecessor.

He did not propose major cuts to the state’s multimillion dollar death penalty defense contracts, a decision the new public defender board members questioned this week. 

“[Lawmakers] made it clear that they were not happy, as has the governor, with the amount we’ve spent on [defending the death penalty],” said Frank Thaxton, a board member and retired state judge from Caddo Parish.

State lawmakers have complained for years that the private, nonprofit law firms who defend those condemned to death in Louisiana cost too much money. They would like to see more of that funding spent on public defenders who handle day-to-day cases in local courts.

This fiscal year and next, Louisiana will spend $6.2 million on private attorneys for death penalty trials, appeals and post-conviction processes, according to financial documents Starns prepared for the board. Another $1.6 million will go to private attorneys handling non-death penalty appeals and post-conviction innocence cases.  

In the next budget cycle, the state will no longer be sending $265,000 to the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights in New Orleans to represent minors accused of crimes, though that contract was canceled under the old public defender board last year. Starns also declined to put more money into some expert witness funds used by the death penalty defense teams and others. 

But Starns said it’s difficult for him to cut the private attorney contracts directly because very few local public defenders are certified to handle capital cases, and a robust defense against the death penalty is constitutionally required.

Board members, however, seemed skeptical the outside lawyers needed to be paid as much as they are currently.

“Quite frankly, I believe it is incumbent on the board to make every effort to reduce the amount we paid [to attorneys from death penalty cases] from last year,” said board member Ted Hernandez. 

While there are no cuts to spending on defense attorneys, Starns had proposed funneling the spending through local public defender offices instead of giving it out directly from his staff, as happens now.  

Letting the local district defenders handle death penalty defense agreements might encourage private attorneys to pick up some life-without-parole cases, which can overwhelm local staff, Starns said.

Starns said one nonprofit defense team, the Baton Rouge Capital Conflict Office, had already successfully merged with the public defender office in the 19th Judicial District in East Baton Rouge Parish to combine resources. He wanted three other similar partnerships – in Lafayette, St. Tammany and Caddo parishes – to take place.

The board rejected Starns proposal, however, saying it would rather have the state handle the death penalty defense contracts instead of local offices. Board members were responding, in part, to remarks from Michelle AndrePont who runs the Caddo Parish Public Defender Office. 

AndrePont told the board she wouldn’t feel comfortable handling a $400,000 contract with the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center (LCAC) from the Caddo public defender office, as Starns had proposed. The group’s death penalty cases aren’t coming from her judicial district, and the organization would also only commit to picking up a couple of life-without-parole cases, which wouldn’t significantly help with her staff’s caseload. 

“I’m being presented with a contract for a very large sum of money to LCAC for cases that have nothing to do with my district,” AndrePont said. “I’m supposed to send them $400,000 per year for capital work that is between them and the Office of the State Public Defender that has nothing to do with me.”

The board also rejected another Starns’ plan to rework the pay scale of district defenders. AndrePont and other district defenders said his proposal would cut their annual pay by tens of thousands of dollars per year.

Starns has repeatedly described the district defenders current pay scale, which was implemented by the previous public defender board, as an “abomination” that will cost the system too much money.

The former board raised the pay of the state’s district defenders collectively by almost $1 million annually in 2023. Thaxton, who served on the previous board, said the pay hikes were necessary because some district defenders hadn’t received raises in several years.

Under Starns plan, at least 20 district defenders would receive a pay cut, said Trisha Ward, the district defender for the 13th Judicial District in Evangeline Parish. She would personally see a salary reduction of $42,500 annually, she told board members at this week’s public meeting. 

Brett Brunson, district defender in the 10th Judicial District in Natchitoches Parish, said he was hired 18 years ago for a little over $100,000 per year and never received an increase until the new pay scale went into effect last fall. It gave him an extra $10,000 annually. 

Under Starns’ plan, Brunson’s income would have been cut $30,000, meaning he would have made less than when he was initially hired almost two decades ago. 

“I know there is a draconian cut to some of the chiefs in other small districts,” under Starns plan, Brunson told the board. 

Instead of adopting Starns’ strategy, the board said it would come up with its own compensation proposal over the next year. Until then, the current pay scale will remain in place.