Defense in sniper case will cost Virginia over $1 million

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

FAIRFAX, Va. -- With the first trial in the Washington sniper case set to begin today, the court-appointed lawyers for the two defendants have submitted nearly $900,000 in bills so far for reimbursement by Virginia taxpayers.

The attorneys appear to be on their way to racking up the most expensive court-appointed defenses in Virginia history, though nobody keeps statistics on such matters.

According to the Virginia Supreme Court, which keeps track of expenses incurred for indigent defendants, John Allen Muhammad's lawyers have filed for $401,785 through September. Lee Boyd Malvo's lawyers have filed for $478,677.

Not including trial costs

The bills include lawyers' fees of $125 an hour, and payments for court-appointed investigators, mental-health experts and forensic experts. The bills do not include the costs of the trials themselves, which will require housing not only for the lawyers but for all their witnesses.

Both trials have been moved about 200 miles from the Washington suburbs to Hampton Roads for fear it will be difficult to select an unbiased jury in the metropolitan area where the sniper shootings created such fear last fall.

Muhammad, 42, goes on trial today in Virginia Beach in the Oct. 9, 2002, shooting of Dean Harold Meyers outside a Manassas gas station. Malvo's trial, in the Oct. 14, 2002, shooting death of FBI analyst Linda Franklin, begins Nov. 10 in Chesapeake. Muhammad's trial is expected to take six weeks, Malvo's trial perhaps four.

The two are charged with 13 shootings, including 10 killings, over a three-week span last October in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. They are also suspected or charged in shootings in Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Arizona and Washington state.

Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. said he has never seen so much money spent on a defense in the 37 years he has served as chief prosecutor in Virginia's most populous county.

"My personal view is that Virginia made a very bad mistake when they took the cap off the fees" paid to court-appointed defense lawyers in capital cases, Horan said. "It's an open invitation to file any motion under the sun. It's just totally changed the landscape on these things."

The prosecution's costs are unclear. Horan said any figure would be a guess because many of the witnesses are government employees who get paid whether or not they work on the sniper case.

No cap in murder cases

In Virginia, court-appointed lawyers' fees are usually capped. The most a lawyer can get is $1,235 to represent a defendant charged with a felony punishable by 20 or more years. That cap used to apply to capital murder cases but was lifted by the legislature in the late 1980s.

Craig Cooley, one of Malvo's lawyers and a veteran defense attorney who has handled scores of capital cases, said he was paid exactly $400 on each of the first 20 capital cases to which he was assigned.

Cooley said that the Malvo case is the most expensive he has ever been involved with, but that the defense costs are "a smidgen compared to what prosecutors are spending."

The sniper case "is incredibly more complex" than a typical capital case, Cooley said, with a sprawling investigation that includes more than a dozen shooting scenes and investigators who have had to travel to Louisiana, Washington, Jamaica and Antigua, among other places.

Jonathan Shapiro, one of Muhammad's lawyers, said the sniper case is like none other before it, with the possible exception of the Oklahoma City bombing.

Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh's defense team racked up nearly $14 million in expenses paid by federal taxpayers. (McVeigh's prosecution cost $82 million, according to government records.) That case, though, was handled in federal court, which is more liberal about allowing defense attorneys to spend money on jury consultants and other items.

Shapiro said the judge gave him and co-counsel Peter Greenspun most of what they asked for, though the defense team was denied a request for a jury consultant and some other items.

Shapiro said the need for investigators is made greater by Virginia's rules of evidence, which do not require prosecutors to share all that they have learned with the defense.

Shapiro unsuccessfully asked for sanctions against police who leaked numerous documents to two Washington Post reporters who wrote a recent book about the case.

"There is a ton of stuff we never would have found out" if not for the book, Shapiro said. "The irony is just so extreme that they went to such lengths to withhold the information from us, but they just give it out to the press."

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