'Asian Boyz' case highlights costs of lengthy trials
Published: Saturday, September 15, 2012 at 3:17 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, September 15, 2012 at 3:17 p.m.
Court-appointed lawyers and investigators defending six Santa Rosa gang members tied to a 2008 Jenner beach murder submitted bills to Sonoma County totaling more than $520,000.
The money, divided among 11 attorneys and three investigators for the Asian Boyz defendants, was in addition to full-time salaries paid to some of the lawyers under contract with the county to represent poor people.
The costs were driven up, in part, by the more than two years it took then-District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua to decide whether he would seek the death penalty.
During that time, four of the defendants each were appointed a second, publicly funded attorney and one of the defendants racked up a six-figure investigative bill to prepare for an anticipated punishment phase of the trial.
Ultimately, Passalacqua took death off the table in October 2010, deciding instead to seek life in prison without parole. The four were convicted in June and have begun serving their sentences.
“Death penalty prosecutions are very expensive and taxpayers bear this cost,” said Judge Rene Chouteau, who presides over Sonoma County Superior Court and approved some of the defense fees. “This is one example.”
The financial lesson is one death penalty opponents hope voters will take to the polls Nov. 6 when they consider Proposition 34, an initiative to end capital punishment and replace it with life in prison.
Prop. 34 supporters argue the death penalty is wrong and costs Californians millions of dollars each year, both in legal fees and the expense of housing the 725 people on San Quentin's Death Row.
“This is a perfect time to get rid of the death penalty,” said interim Public Defender Kathleen Pozzi. “It makes fiscal sense to do it. We can put the money where it's needed.”
Sonoma County's Asian Boyz case began with the March 2008 abduction and slaying of Vutha Au, 24, of Santa Rosa, in a Sonoma Coast beach parking lot a few miles south of Jenner.
Prosecutors said he was killed in retribution for his brother's testimony against gang members. The gang had kidnapped and tortured his brother when he refused to sell drugs for them.
Initially, police arrested six suspects on charges of murder with special circumstances. All were eligible for the death penalty. Two pleaded to lesser charges in 2011 and were sent to prison.
Four went to trial. Preston Khaoone, 26, Quentin Russell, 28, and brothers Sarith Prak, 25, and David Prak, 23, all of Santa Rosa, were convicted of first-degree murder, kidnapping and gang participation.
All were sentenced in July to life without parole in prison.
But long before their trial, a team of lawyers and investigators appointed by the court were working on their defenses.
Second attorneys expecting a death penalty phase logged hours crafting legal arguments. Death penalty investigators researched family backgrounds to look for mitigating factors. For example, the Praks' parents were Cambodian refugees who escaped death at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
If the brothers had been convicted and faced execution, lawyers were preparing to argue their bleak childhoods played a role in their decision to join a gang, a lawyer familiar with the case said.
It was an expensive and time-consuming endeavor that generated huge fees.
“I don't think it was a gouging,” said Kristine Burk, who was second lawyer to David Prak. “Our focus was entirely on removing the death penalty from the case. If our interest was financial, that would be counter-intuitive.”
The bills were released this week by the Sonoma County counsel's office in response to a public records request submitted last month by The Press Democrat.
Topping the list for the legal team was a $127,000 bill from Stinson Beach private investigator Sheila O'Donnell. She worked with attorneys for the alleged mastermind, Preston Khaoone, who was said to have ordered Au's killing.
O'Donnell didn't return a call Friday seeking comment.
Khaoone's second lawyer, Gordon “Bart” Scott, submitted bills for $91,600, while Khaoone's trial attorney, Kathy Hernandez, sent invoices for $12,300 in addition to the salary she was paid by the county.
Court-appointed attorneys are paid an undisclosed portion of a $2.2 million contract the county has with a group of about 15 lawyers.
Scott objected to the disclosure of his fees and would not discuss details of his work Friday.
“My obligation is to my client,” Scott said. “What I did on his behalf is between him and me and the court.”
Bills from other second attorneys included $47,500 from George Boisseau, who represented co-defendant Tyrone Tay, and $22,300 from Kristine Burk.
In addition, Erik Bruce, an attorney for co-defendant Boonlak Chanpheng, billed the county $47,600, and Marylou Hillberg, second lawyer for Sarith Prak, got $14,700.
“That's way on the low side,” said Bruce, who invested more than six months defending Chanpheng. “A private lawyer would have charged a lot more than I was into it.”
Attorney Marty Woods, who represented Russell — the shooter — was paid his county salary the first two years and billed the county a flat $95,400 for the second two years.
Two other investigators, James Baker and Chris Reynolds, submitted bills for a combined $15,000.
Just how the costs compare to other similar multi-defendant cases in Sonoma County is unknown. And the amounts don't include prosecution costs, which involved thousands of hours of staff time by attorneys, investigators and victim advocates, District Attorney Jill Ravitch said.
“We don't keep an hourly accounting of what we do,” Ravitch said. “If we did, we'd all be taken aback.”
But the defense fees would have been higher if prosecutors had continued to pursue the death penalty. After a finding of guilt, a second trial would have been held to decide punishment.
“The reality is, the costs are driven by the decisions the district attorney makes or fails to make,” Bruce said. “There's a lot of posturing and politicking that's unnecessary and ends up costing a lot of money.”
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