Charenton killings: Judge orders state to pay public defender

By PRESTON GILL pgill@daily-review.com

Judge Keith Comeaux of the 16th Judicial District on Thursday ordered the Louisiana Public Defender Board to pay $15,600 to the local public defender's office within 15 days for evaluation of Wilbert Thibodeaux, accused of a double killing more than a year ago.
Staff from the board said they are not legally allowed to make the payment, thus setting up a possible battle in the state court of appeals.
Thibodeaux has been jailed on two murder charges and other offenses. He is accused of killing Chitimacha tribal officer Rick Riggenback and Thibodeaux’s 78-year-old neighbor Eddie Lyons in Charenton on Jan. 26, 2013.
Thibodeaux is also accused of shooting and injuring St. Mary Parish Sheriff’s deputies Jason Javier and Matthew Strickland in the incident.
State law will not allow the state board to issue payment because they cannot pre-pay for services, Jean Faria, state board capital case coordinator, told Comeaux. The Louisiana Public Defender Board needs to have reviewed invoices that are approved by the public defender working on the case, she said.
Comeaux said, “You are citing state law. I am citing the Louisiana and United States Constitution that says this man has a right to a trial and a defense.”
The judge said, “Take me up Ms. Faria. Take me up to the 1st Circuit Court and the state Supreme Court. I want this heard. I want this on everybody’s mind.”
Under questioning by Comeaux, Faria testified that the board contracts with 501(c)3 non-profit organizations, covering expert witness fees, a limited number of DNA tests and recently the board began paying for mitigation specialist as well. She said the state board has sent $20,000 to the local public defender board and has allocated another $7,800 for remittance to the local board in the Thibodeaux case.
James Dixon Jr., also with the state board, said he disagreed with the judge’s assessment that this was a matter of a defendant’s right to a trial and attorney representation.
“It is not like we are holding up the prosecution of this case,” he said. “We have already paid money and we have $7,800 that we can give the local public defender. They can move forward with that and they can make a supplemental request for the rest.”
The law creating the board in 2007 was designed to make the function of the public defendant attorneys independent of political interference or of the judicial branch, Faria said after the hearing.
“What we disagree with is the method in which the judge imposed an order to write a check for work that has not been done,” Faria said. “We do not believe the judge can order that to be done.”
Both state board staff members said the judge’s order puts them in a situation where they are riding the horns of a dilemma. Do they follow a judge’s order or do they follow state law? Thus the matter will likely find its way into a state appellant court within days.
Robert Fuhrer, representing the state board, was turned down when he asked Comeaux to stay his order until it could be heard by a higher court.
Thibodeaux is being held at Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel. He has been ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation as to his mental fitness to go to trial. He sat silently in court, slouched to the right in his chair, staring aimlessly in space as attorneys and judges argued over how to pay for his mental evaluation.
With over a year passing since the killings and little headway of the case in the court, Comeaux kept prodding Faria for an explanation of what is holding up funding for expert witnesses and psychiatric evaluations so that the trial can move forward.
Faria said the Louisiana Public Defender Board has lifted a temporary freeze on expert witness payments that had been in place when the board decided it needed to get a better understanding of where its budget stood as well as implementing policies on payments.
Payment for services can take several months, Faria said.
Comeaux said waiting for months on a payment is too long. He suggested that perhaps there could be mechanisms in place that would encourage efficient use of funds such as limiting the total amount a provider can charge.
“This is a horrible way to try cases,” Comeaux said of the current situation in the trial. “Something needs to be done. This trial has been put on hold for a year.”
Faria agreed the process is difficult and has problems, but it is driven by legislation and board policies.

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