NEWTON FALLS, Ohio (WKBN) – Trumbull County spent $600,000 last year on public defenders. One man who used that service says the county isn’t getting its money’s worth.
This story starts with a dead snapping turtle and it escalates into a full-blown crisis over constitutional rights for Charles Luck – a man who found himself at the center of a slightly ludicrous situation with very serious consequences.
Charles Luck’s day in court
Luck loves snapping turtles. Snapping turtles, box turtles — he loves to watch them all. In fact, he built a pond for them in his Mesopotamia Township backyard. He even kept the water aerated so it didn’t freeze over and kill the turtles.
Luck’s love for turtles is why he was devastated when he hit a small snapping turtle with his truck.
“I injured it. I squished its right leg,” he said. “Doing the compassionate thing, I got back in my vehicle and I backed my vehicle up to euthanize it with my tire.”
His neighbor saw him roll over the turtle and called police. Luck was charged with cruelty to animals.
He went to court in Newton Falls, where he was assigned a public defender.
Luck said his rights were not respected.
“It is standard practice for a defendant to be asked, coerced, suggested, to sign a speedy trial waiver.”
That’s when a defendant gives up the right to a speedy trial. Luck refused to agree to that and instead asked for a trial.
Time went on and his public defender called no witnesses. The day of the trial, there was no jury.
“There was no way, in my mind, that he was ready for trial,” Luck said.
He said he felt pressured to take a plea bargain. In fact, Luck’s attorney had already made one out – a no contest plea on the animal cruelty charge. But that was something Luck said he would never do.
“I was innocent.”Video: Charles Luck’s day in court
Trumbull County lawyers’ caseloads lead to plea bargains
The state public defender’s office and Newton Falls Judge Philip Vigorito agreed. They said today’s high caseloads give lawyers an incentive to plea bargain.
“Almost 700 cases a month. The prosecutor is here a couple of days a week. It is just physically impossible to have trials,” Vigorito said.
Tim Young, with the state public defender’s office, said he agrees and private attorneys do, too.
“I think there comes a point in time that balance between advising your client and pressuring your client can become a gray area,” he said.
Every day, more criminal charges are filed, adding to an even greater caseload. Luck said that could lead to more cases like his falling through the cracks.
It all comes down to money
Here’s the problem — constitutional law says states are obligated to provide people attorneys if they can’t afford them. It’s called indigent defense. But what the constitution doesn’t say is how to pay for it.
There are two different ways to handle indigent defense cases.
In Mahoning, 125 different attorneys share the burden, in addition to their private practices. They handled 5,000 cases across the county.
In Trumbull, 20 lawyers handle nearly 6,500 cases across the county. That’s all they do — one defender handles each courtroom.
That costs $600,000 in Trumbull County but in Mahoning, it’s three times as much — $1.8 million.
Judge Vigorito said both systems have qualified attorneys working for people.
“I don’t think that one’s better than the other, generally speaking.”
It is cheaper to have a publicly-paid attorney than several who take case-by-case contracts.
“It comes down to a matter of funding,” Vigorito said.
The state office of the public defender said the system is short-changed by $30 million. That means public defenders get overloaded.
“Is the system perfect? No. No system is perfect. Is there failure in the system? Yes. Can it be remedied? Yes,” Young said.
WKBN made a public records request for the county indigent defense fund. Then we counted how many cases each attorney was paid for. The costs in each county are wildly different.
As for his time as a defendant, Luck said he thinks the Mahoning County system would make more sense, even if the Trumbull system is cheaper.
“I bet you if we check the docket today, there’s probably a hundred cases,” Luck said.
He said there’s no way one attorney can keep track of that many clients but unless more money pours in, that’s the way it will stay.
The case against Charles Luck was dismissed because he stuck to his guns when it came to his right to a speedy trial.