TOPEKA — Tough economic times are taking their toll on the public defenders fund that pays for things such as expert witnesses, causing delays in some trials.
It's unclear how many trials are being delayed, though the number is increasing, an official said. Most notably, a resentencing trial for Gavin Scott, who faces the death penalty for a third time, was pushed back to April 2010 because of the cost of paying expert witnesses. It originally was set for next month.
The money for expert services — such as court reporters, witnesses or translators — is raised through a $100 fee clients pay when a public defender is appointed, said Patricia Scalia, director of the state Board of Indigents' Defense Services.
The fund is lagging about seven weeks in the money needed to pay for expert services.
"It's a reflection on people not being able to pay or the court waiving the fee entirely," Scalia said. She expects the fund to improve when the economy does.
In the last fiscal year, the fund paid for expert services 1,441 times at a cost of $829,164. That does not reflect every case, and not all cases need expert services, Scalia said.
In the meantime, some trials — particularly ones that require expensive expert witnesses or other services — are being delayed.
The delays are becoming more frequent, but they do not affect every case, said Ron Evans, chief attorney for the board's Death Penalty Unit.
"It varies from case to case depending on what is needed, how expensive the experts are," Evans said.
The decision to delay the Scott trial came in the last fiscal year, which ended June 30, Scalia said. Expert witnesses for death penalty cases are expensive and the fund lacked the money to provide a retainer fee.
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