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Smith County meeting discusses joining public defenders office

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SMITH COUNTY (TYLER MORNING TELEGRAPH) - The cost of trying a capital murder case in a small rural county in Texas can sometimes create such a hardship that county commissioners must raise taxes to recoup the costs, a representative from the Regional Public Defender Office for Capital Cases told some Smith County judges and other county officials Thursday.

The office, based in Lubbock, is funded partly by grants from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission and through interlocal agreements with a number of Texas counties. It is looking to expand to East Texas, its chief public defender, Jack Stoffregen said.

Stoffregen talked about ways he could help Smith County keep those costs down if its officials approved joining with his office.

"We look for counties to furnish us office space; we buy our own furniture and provide capital litigators, legal assistants and investigators to help defend individuals against capital murder charges," Stoffregen said. He said the Regional Public Defender Office pays every capital expense except expert witnesses. Stoffregen also said the Defender Office won't handle the appeal in a death sentence case.

He added that his office hires local attorneys as much as possible because of their established relationships with judges and other legal professionals and community ties.

The West Texas Regional Public Defender Office was established five years ago by an interlocal agreement between the counties and the 7th and 9th judicial regions, according to information they provided. The Lubbock-based office currently has satellite offices in Amarillo, Angleton, Burnet, Kingsville, Midland and Uvalde. It represents only indigent defendants charged with capital offenses.

The Texas Indigent Defense Commission will provide funds to operate the Public Defender Office on a cost-sharing basis. The cost to any county that enters the program is free for the first year. Then Smith County, if it decides to opt in, would pay an increasing cost each year for the next six years, with the Texas Indigent Defense Commission paying a smaller portion each year. By the sixth year, the county is paying the cost entirely to participate. Stoffregen compared the Public Defender Office to an insurance premium risk pool.

Smith County Judge Joel Baker said after the meeting that he did not know if the county would participate but was looking at the issue. He said he and county commissioners did not know if the program would save the money. "We will work on it a little further," he said.

Baker has not set a date yet when commissioners will vote on the issue.

For more information about the Regional Public Defender Office for Capital Cases, go to www.rpdo.org.

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