State commission defending suspects in high profile cases, strapped for funds

LINCOLN, Neb. (Nebraska) — A small state agency is hoping Nebraska’s Unicameral has an answer to its financial crisis this session.

“We need revenue,” said Jeff Pickens, chief counsel to the Nebraska Commission on Public Defense.

Pickens said that, without changes, it will be the state’s smaller counties that will have the most problems.

“If we’re not around, the counties are in for a rude awakening when they get their next homicide case,” Pickens said.

Counties, such as Saline. About 14,000 people live there, of which just under 2,000 in Wilber.

It is the Czech capital of Nebraska, the county seat and the site of the brutal murder of 24-year-old Sydney Loofe in 2017 with two Wilber residents, Aubrey Trail and Bailey Boswell convicted of the crime.

County Commissioner Marvin Kohout said when news of Loofe’s disappearance and subsequent murder came to light, his thoughts went first to the Loofe family.

Then they moved on to costs.

“You know you’re going to have a huge expense,” Kohout said.

In this case, these costs have been multiplied by two.

“If they can’t afford a lawyer, as you may know, the court will appoint someone for them,” said former county prosecutor Tad Eickman.

This is where the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy came into play. The state agency represents defendants in complex criminal cases, which arose out of a crisis in Richardson County when two high-profile homicides in the 1980s and 1990s brought the county to the brink of death. failure.

“So, in 1995 the legislature created us to go around the state and defend these high-profile homicide cases and we’ve been doing it since 1996 without fees to the counties,” the commission’s chief counsel said.

Pickens and another attorney with the Todd Lancaster commission took on the Bailey Boswell case, saving the county hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“That’s a big plus,” Eickman said. “They also have a lot of experience representing people in high-profile cases.”

They did the same in 72 counties, representing 1,500 defendants in total. 185 of those homicide cases, 13 of which, were death row cases. But whether they’re able to do more in the future is in the hands of the Nebraska legislature, because the commission is running out of money.

“Now we are at a point where we are in crisis. We are still in crisis. And if we don’t get a permanent, permanent funding solution soon, then the office will slowly die of attrition,” Pickens said.

The commission is funded by a three-dollar filing fee, which for a while brought in more than a million dollars a year, but that is no longer the case.

“Case registrations have been declining every year since 2008,” Pickens said. “Recently our annual revenue is over half a million dollars lower than in 2008.”

With the decline in documents filed, the cash balance of the fee has also decreased. It used to cost over a million dollars, but is now at $408,000. It hit a low of $15,000 in 2021. Now they get away with just two $520,000 deposits from lawmakers to help keep them afloat.

Pickens seeks approval of one of two bills. One, introduced by Sen. Barry DeKay, would raise the indigent defense filing fee from $3 per filing to $8.

The second, introduced by Sen. John Cavanaugh, would eliminate that commission and instead allocate $2.1 million in general funds to the commission.

Cavanaugh told 11/10 that the commission is essential for Nebraska counties.

“You’ll see that there’s basically once a year, there seems to be only one high-profile homicide in a smallest county in the state and if the commission didn’t exist, those counties would have to pay for that representation,” Cavanaugh said. “And a county of you know, 8,000 people, doesn’t have much room in its budget to absorb, you know, nearly $100,000 in legal fees for a homicide.”

Neither bill had been voted out of the Appropriations Committee at the time of publication.

While Pickens said he didn’t care which bill passed, only one of them did, both he and Cavanaugh said the pivot to using money from the General Fund might be more sustainable in the long run at cause of abandonment of statements in court.

Cavanaugh said complaints are declining for several reasons, including fewer people filing lawsuits, decreased crime and an increasing use of courts to resolve issues. Pickens said filing fees aren’t likely to ever increase, which could leave them in the same position in the future.

“If we don’t get a permanent financing solution, over time and lawyers retire or move on to other jobs, then we won’t be able to replace them,” Pickens said. “And we won’t be able to provide the services we have provided in the past. And of course, if we can’t provide the services, we can’t provide property tax relief.”

If they can’t provide property tax relief, the Nebraska County Officials Association said the counties would suffer.

10/11 asked how big the commission loss would be.

“Huge,” said Elaine Menzel, legal counsel for the Association. “That’s the best explanation. I think it would put us back in positions similar to what happened in Richardson County. They were worried about going bankrupt.”

The association said a further complication for these counties is the lack of experienced lawyers nearby. That would mean counties would have to hire potentially inexperienced lawyers or pay even more to hire someone from out of town.

“When you look at the number of counties that have no attorneys within the county lines, or three or fewer attorneys within the county lines, it’s pretty staggering. And that number is expected to grow over time,” said Jon Cannon, executive director of the association.

Kohout said Saline County had to hire out-of-town attorneys for Aubrey Trail. If the commission didn’t exist and they would have had to do the same for Boswell, they’d be out double what they had to pay for Aubrey Trail’s defense, which is $320,000 and county.

“I don’t know how many other appeals there are for Aubrey Trail,” Kohout said. “I think we’ll easily hit $350,000.”

He said the county was able to absorb those costs by using their estate tax which serves as a “rainy day fund,” but would not be able to meet the costs of Boswell’s defense.

“We should have raised property taxes, we would have,” Kohout said.

Adding a financial burden to what is already a heartbreaking chapter in Wilber’s story.

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