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Trial costs rack up quickly in felony cases
Judges work to cut down expenses
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Superior Court costs

Jury call: About 200 are called in on a typical jury week, at $40 a person, or $8,000 each jury day. Jury call is usually at least once a month and jurors are whittled down to those who will serve on trials.

At trial: About $1,000 is spent per day to pay those who have to attend court, including jurors and bailiffs. Off-duty officers also are paid by the court when they must testify.

Documentation: About $125,000 is spent per year in transcript fees of all proceedings. Contracted interpreters are paid about $40 an hour, though those interpreting languages other than Spanish cost more.

When prosecutors seek the death penalty, a book with hundreds of motions kicks in that draws out a case for months, costing taxpayers thousands.

“When you seek the death penalty, you have to do a unified appeal process, which is very detailed and more rigorous than a non-death penalty case from the time it starts all the way through the motions,” said Superior Court Judge Bonnie Oliver.

The defense book has grown considerably over the career of Superior Court Judge Andrew Fuller, looking at criteria such as a demographically balanced jury box and other circumstances.

“Out of an ounce of precaution, they file everything and so it ratchets up the time required,” Oliver said.

For these reasons, death penalty cases are rare, with the most recent national example being the case of Boston bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev. Tsarnaev was given the death penalty by a Boston jury on May 15.

“You’re in a process that could result in a jury — 12 people — being asked to make a decision to put a person to death, and the goal of our system is to make sure it’s done correctly and the jury ultimately has every resource available and presented to them to make that decision,” Fuller said.

Attorney Lydia Sartain, who served as district attorney in the mid-1990s, wrangled with the issue herself in one case.

Austin Sparks, a 19-month-old child, died on Jan. 16, 1996, at the hands of his then 17-year-old babysitter Jason Lamar Smith.

When prosecuting Smith, Sartain said she was criticized for not seeking the death penalty, saying she “got more threats from this case than any other I prosecuted.”

“Had I bowed to public pressure I would have cost the county at least a half million dollars and would have been overturned,” Sartain wrote in an email.

Sartain said she didn’t believe Smith would receive the death penalty and thought life without parole would be a better option.

A 2013 Supreme Court case would later invalidate Smith’s sentence. Smith had his sentence changed to life with the possibility of parole in 2014.

Cutting back costs

While death penalty cases are rare for the Northeastern Judicial Circuit, Fuller and the other Superior Court judges said felony cases can quite easily start racking up costs.

In an effort to reduce such costs, Fuller and the fellow judges meet weekly to consider ways to economize and run more efficiently.

One such tool is running trials at the same time as other courts throughout the building.

On an average jury call, 200 jurors are summoned and paid $40 per person.

“That’s $8,000 a day just to crank up on Monday,” said court administrator Reggie Forrester. “It’s a pretty expensive proposition.”

For example, the week of July 14, 2014, saw 245 people summoned to the Hall County Courthouse Monday, a number eventually whittled down to 33 by Thursday. Five judges between Superior Court and State Court took jurors, leading to payments totaling $15,600.

For the simplest felony case, it takes around 40 jurors to cut down to the 12-person jury and an alternate. Multiple defendants can cause that number to go higher.

On average, Forrester said, a felony trial going for five days could cost more than $5,000 per week.

Add a contracted Spanish-language interpreter, the judges said, and you can see another $40 per hour tacked on.

The judges and Forrester mentioned at the Hall County budget forum on May 19 the coming calendar, which included a five-defendant murder case.

Defendants have filed motions to sever the co-defendants, meaning the case would be heard separately.

“We have to plan for the worst and hope for the best,” Superior Court Judge Jason Deal said in a general sense of the budget. “We’ve got to plan as if we have to try those cases, and if they resolve in some other manner, then it’s not near as expensive.”

Costs of doing business

For the fees of people attending court, police officers and deputies who primarily work at night receive pay from the Superior Court budget to testify.

“Many of the crimes that we see occur at night by night-shift officers, who then come to court during the day, so they’re off duty,” Fuller said.

Nearly half of the entire budget for attending court fees come from transcripts, which runs $125,000 a year.

Under Georgia law, every defendant is entitled to one free transcript. The Georgia Supreme Court’s Administrative Office of the Courts has worked to find ways to shrink costs for counties.

“There’s been a push to do electronic … video stuff as opposed to a person, but there’s a lot of pushback to that,” said Superior Court Judge Kathlene Gosselin.

Critics, Gosselin said, point to the fact that cross-talk would make it difficult to capture the comments electronically compared to a person who can listen back to the tape.


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