WARNER ROBINS -- A bill for the county’s share of the capital murder defense of two Eatonton men accused of slaying a Warner Robins man for his car raised a red flag when it came across the desk of Houston County Commission Chairman Tommy Stalnaker.
“I can see this expense getting out of hand as far as local governments are concerned,” Stalnaker said.
The $18,936.88 bill from the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council also drew the ire of Commissioner Tom McMichael.
“It absolutely blew my mind,” McMichael said. “This thing hasn’t even been to trial.”
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The bill is for the county’s share of the indigent defense of Joshua Dupree Rounsoville, 24, and Stewart Calvert Brannon, 22, who are accused of the August 2008 fatal shooting of Maurice Smith, a 25-year-old maintenance worker for the Houston County Board of Education.
The total cost for the defense of Rounsoville so far has been $188,935.71, with the total cost for Brannon at $44,718.10, according to figures provided to the county by the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council. Brannon initially hired his own attorney but ran out of money, and a capital defender was assigned to him, Houston County Superior Court records show.
Under state law, the county is responsible for 25 percent of the defense expense once the state agency has expended $150,000 and then for 50 percent of the cost once the agency has spent $250,000.
For the first time since the county has been billed for its portion of Rounsoville’s expense, the cost of defending him and Brannon were lumped together -- the first red flag for Stalnaker.
Thus far, the cost for defending Rounsoville and Brannon totals $233,653.81, and that’s significant, Stalnaker noted, because the combined cost nears the $250,000 threshold for when the county becomes responsible for 50 percent of new costs. Also, the county had not been incurring an expense for Brannon, whose case so far is well below the $150,000 threshold, Stalnaker said.
Stalnaker said he wants to know why the costs are now combined when previously they were not.
Also troubling for Stalnaker and McMichael were two spreadsheets attached with the bill and a letter from the state agency requesting payment. The spreadsheets were included as supporting documentation for the expenses.
Both Stalnaker and McMichael balked at the documentation, noting the repetitive line-item costs for “operational and staffing expenses” state only that the expense item is for “in house costs.”
“How many attorney hours were involved? What was done?” Stalnaker asked. “This is not adequate documentation. Our concern is the accounting.”
McMichael noted, “In house operations? We don’t have a clue what they’re doing.”
Stalnaker said he wants documentation validating the expenses -- not just general line items. He also wanted to know, “How much longer until we get them to trial?”
He continued, “You’re talking about a financial hardship on local government not knowing what to budget and for how long.”
Trying to resolve concerns
Cheryl Prater, director of communications and government relations for the Georgia Public Defenders Council, said she certainly understands the commissioners wanting to know where the money is being spent. But Prater said she was a bit surprised by the emotions expressed because she thought the state agency and the county had agreed to a plan to resolve those concerns.
Also, Prater said she supposes the Rounsoville and Brannon defense costs are combined as one case because they are co-defendants. She said estimating how long cases take to come to trial is next to impossible based on all the various factors and individuals involved in trying a capital case.
Stalnaker said an agreement was worked out with the state agency that the county would withhold payment of the $18,936.88 bill for one month to give the public defenders council time to provide detailed documentation of the expenses and answer the concerns he expressed.
“I’m not backing off of that,” Stalnaker said. “It ought to be a situation where you don’t have to ask to provide data.”
The defense of Rounsoville and Brannon isn’t the only capital case Houston County is helping to fund.
So far, the total cost for the defense in the death-penalty case against 49-year-old Timothy Johnson -- whose 1984 murder conviction was overturned in February 2006 by the Georgia Supreme Court but who was indicted anew in June 2006 for the slaying -- has reached $190,842.16. The county has shelled out $10,210.55 to date, Stalnaker said.
Johnson, at age 22, pleaded guilty to the murder of a Warner Robins convenience store clerk during a botched armed robbery. The Georgia Supreme Court ruled he didn’t understand his right not to incriminate himself and to question witnesses when he entered his guilty plea. With the crime of murder having no statute of limitations, he was re-indicted, and a notice to seek the death penalty was filed the same month.
Johnson and Brannon are being held in the Houston County jail pending trial. Rounsoville is being held in an Augusta facility pending trial.
“Not only are we paying part of the defense,” Stalnaker said, “We’re paying to house them and to prosecute them.”
He added, “I’m for justice and for people to have a fair trial. I’m just not for spending unlimited amounts of taxpayers money without accountability.”
Other capital cases
While those are the capital cases the county is now helping to fund, other death penalty cases are pending trial.
District Attorney George Hartwig filed notice Wednesday to seek the death penalty for the accused shooter in an alleged murder-for-hire case.
Richard Grant Sybert, 30, of Warner Robins, is accused of the Feb. 8, 2011, shooting death of Joni Clements in her Warner Robins home for the promise of $1,000 from the victim’s husband, a car and a date with a stripper.
The victim’s husband, James “Eddy” Clements, 55, is accused of hiring Sybert to kill his wife. Robert Sybert, 54, who cleaned the family pool for the Clements family, is accused of being his son’s getaway driver and providing the gun used in the slaying.
Hartwig said he would not seek the death penalty for Clements or Robert Sybert.
While cost is obviously a factor in reaching a decision whether to try a death penalty case, Hartwig said, there are other factors that come into play and bear a heavier weight, such as the crime itself and the wishes of the victim’s family.
On the other hand, not all murders should be death penalty cases, Hartwig said. He noted the decision in the past year to abandon trying 30-year-old Eugene Leslie of Warner Robins as a capital case. Leslie is accused of the Aug. 28, 2008, shooting death of Jason Glenn Wade, 32, a former TV videographer, in Wade’s duplex apartment on Brady Drive.
Hartwig, a veteran prosecutor who’s been serving as the district attorney for about year, inherited the Leslie case along with Rounsoville, Brannon and 37-year-old Erik Mize. Mize is awaiting trial for the 2006 stabbing death of Felicia L. Hardman, a 29-year-old mother of two who was killed in her Warner Robins home.
Another inherited case is one in which the Warner Robins parents of a 2-year-old boy are accused of starving their son to death. The groundwork was laid by a previous district attorney to seek the death penalty. Hartwig said that is another case in which the death penalty will not be sought.
William Thomas Davis III, 27, and his live-in girlfriend Sade Shamon King, 24, face trial in the Sept. 11, 2010, death of their son D’Shawn Davis.
McMichael, who echoed sentiments expressed by Stalnaker, noted the costs associated with the defense of Johnson, Rounsoville and Brannon are the “tip of the iceberg.”
McMichael said he certainly believes all individuals have the right to fair trial and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. But, he added, “There’s a limit to anything you do.”