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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Officials talk court procedure

Sunday, June 7, 2009

With so many criminals running through the court system, it forces officials to decide whether to pursue a jury trial or negotiate a plea agreement.

Recently, Clay County Prosecutor Lee Reberger, Deputy Prosecutor Kim Jackson, Superior Court Judge J. Blaine Akers and Circuit Court Judge Joe Trout spoke with The Brazil Times about what factors are taken into account when determining which route to pursue.

Typically, when going to a jury trial, no added costs are necessary unless there are extenuating circumstances.

"If there is a situation where I have a conflict of interest due to prior representation of a party involved, it eliminates the entire office from trying the case and a special prosecutor has to brought in," Reberger said. "Now, if Kim has a conflict, I still can be the prosecuting attorney because there is a trickle down effect of who is eligible to try a case."

In other situations where there are multiple arrests at one scene, the need for special public defenders can arise.

"Blaine has one public defender on salary and I have two built into the budget," Trout said. "But if there is a time where five or six people are arrested at the same place and time, they each have to have a separate public defender, because they are not allowed to all be represented by the same one."

With the high volume of criminal cases passing through the Circuit and Superior courts since the beginning of the year, Trout has already had to request an additional appropriation of $20,000 from the Clay County Council to pay for public defender services.

"When we have to appoint a special public defender, the county must pay the state rate, which is about $60 an hour," he said.

Akers added the county collects fees which go into a separate fund to help offset the costs of hiring special public defenders.

"We have a Public Defender Fund as well, but we assess an attorney fee and get a portion of the bonds which go into this other fund," Akers said. "On an annual basis we collect about $9,000-$12,000 which is set aside for special public defenders."

Although other fees and costs can be incurred by having a jury trial, such as daily costs and mileage for potential jurors and copies of exhibits for a jury's consideration, it is not a major factor in choosing to negotiate a plea agreement over pursuing a jury trial.

"We try hard not to allow extraneous factors, like costs, affect our decision because every case has to be reviewed on its own merits," Jackson said. "Also, because there are different merits and strengths in each case, there is not a standardized plea or sentence either."

Reberger added there are times the Prosecutor's Office pursues a negotiated plea agreement because of the volume of cases coming down the pike and for the potential of guaranteeing incarceration time.

"The hardest part of going to a jury trial is having to convince a panel of six or 12 jurors the individual is guilty 'beyond a reasonable doubt,' because that is a high hurdle to jump," he said. "Sometimes, we can plea a B felony down to a C felony, which not only guarantees a felony conviction, but also an extended punishment as well."

Although the Prosecutor's Office negotiates a plea agreement with the defense, it still falls on the judge to decide whether to accept or reject its terms.

Akers said many factors are considered when he is reviewing a plea, including an individual's prior criminal history and level of addiction.

"I believe we truly have to make an attempt to rehabilitate an individual before handing down a sentence for maximum incarceration," he said. "There could be an outside factor contributing to an addiction, and I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't factor that into the decision. If you were to just sentence someone to the max and never attempt to treat the addiction, it only enhances the possibility of them becoming repeat offenders."

However, Akers said it can be established that an individual is either not treatable or unwilling to be rehabilitated, which changes his approach.

"Now if we try to rehabilitate someone two or three times and it is obvious nothing is sinking in, then I will consider longer incarceration times," Akers said.

"But it is important to help an individual break the chain before locking them away for an extended period of time."

On the civil side of things, Trout said there is rarely a situation that comes up which requires additional costs other than the normal salaries of the court and staff.

"In civil matters, each side pays for its own investigation, depositions and expert witnesses," Trout said. "Also, once the matter is settled, the losing side is responsible for paying the costs and fees."

Trout added maybe 5 percent of civil cases go to trial, in which case the normal costs would apply.

"It costs $15 to call a person to appear for jury duty and if they are selected to be a part of a trial, the daily fee is $40 plus the juror's mileage to come to the courthouse, which is 44 cents per mile," he said.

Reberger and Jackson added there are additional costs if the situation arises where a jury would have to sequestered, selected from another county or if the matter is venued out to another county.

"If another county venues a trial here, there are incidental costs to Clay County for copies and things like that," Reberger said.

"However, like in the upcoming John Lovett case, the county will have to pay the costs for jury expenses, special judge and prosecutors," Jackson added.

Trout said cost was a factor in determining whether to have the Lovett trial here or venue it to Hendricks County, where it will take place.

"When there is a situation a jury would have to come from 50 miles away or more, there is a consideration of what the costs will be because the county would have to pay for the jurors stay at hotels, food and other costs," he said.

"In this case, it was easier to venue the matter out of Clay County, in part, because of the savings on the county, and it lessens the burden of the jurors from driving so far."

Reberger said there are other benefits to negotiating a plea over going to a jury trial.

"It allows for a certain outcome to the case, whereas with a jury trial you just don't know, because there has to be a consensus decision," he said.

He also said there are outside factors which makes it more difficult to prove a case "beyond a reasonable doubt."

"In recent years, there has been the 'CSI' effect in which people almost expect loads of scientific evidence to be available at the snap of a finger, and there are many cases where there is none involved," he said. "It's not as simple as taking a test sample down the hall and getting the results in the time span of a commercial break. For toxicology reports, it can take 6-10 weeks, if not longer."

Jackson added the county can send test samples to the Indiana State Police Crime Lab, which is at no cost to the county, but is not a speedy process.

"Even if we send a sample, it could even take months to get the results back because many other counties are sending their own, and it takes time for ISP to analyze all of them," she said. "So having the option of a plea is a benefit to the taxpayers, county and defendant, but the costs cannot be the reason not to pursue a trial."

Akers agreed costs are not a huge consideration when looking at a case.

"I understand the necessity of having an option for plea agreements because we can't try every case that comes through. It would be impractical to do so," Akers said.

"The main objective is to protect the community from criminal behavior, especially from repeat offenders, and if it costs thousands of dollars to do so, that's what I'm going to do."

Sentencing Guidelines

The following table outlines the potential sentences and maximum fines set by the State of Indiana for convictions ranging from a C misdemeanor to an A Felony.

ChargePossible sentenceAdvisory sentencePotential maximum fine
Murder45-65 years55 years$10,000
A Felony20-50 years30 years$10,000
B Felony6-20 years10 years$10,000
C Felony2-8 years4 years$10,000
D Felonysix months-3 years18 months$10,000
A misdemeanor0-1 yearnone$5,000
B misdemeanor0-180 daysnone$1,000
C misdemeanor0-60 daysnone$500

Note: Trials for cases involving Murder through a C Felony involve a 12-person jury, while trials for a D Felony or below is a six-person jury.

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