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Defense of suspects costs double that of their prosecution

By Joe Dwinell

Taxpayers are spending more than twice as much to defend murderers than to prosecute them as the budget to hire court-appointed lawyers for flat-broke suspects spirals out of control.A Herald investigation shows half a billion taxpayer dollars have been lavished on private attorneys to defend killers, rapists and other indigent suspects over the past five years - even as worried district attorneys are slashing budgets in the face of declining state revenues.
Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe, head of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, said underpaid prosecutors who make "less than some janitors" in the courthouses must face private defense lawyers pulling down $100 an hour in taxpayer money for murder cases.
By comparison, homicide prosecutors, the cream of the DA crop, earn an average of $38.97 per hour, according to Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley, who calls the disparity "outrageous."
The payroll records of the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) from 2004 through September show many taxpayer-funded private attorneys earning megabucks on court-appointed cases:
The case against Christopher McCowen, the trash hauler convicted of raping and murdering fashion writer Christa Worthington in Truro in 2002, netted his attorney Robert George some $300,000 in taxpayer money. George confirmed that figure but declined comment.
Neil Entwistle, the sex-site-surfing British husband who murdered his wife and baby girl in Hopkinton in 2006, required two taxpayer-funded attorneys. Defense lawyer Elliot Weinstein pulled in $221,000 from the CPCS the past five years and co-counsel Stephanie Page earns $99,000 annually as a CPCS staff attorney.
Stephen Maidman - who received a whopping $584,000 from the CPCS defending indigent clients in the same period - has just been assigned Entwistle's appeal. The CPCS refused to divulge the total cost of the Entwistle case.
James Keown, who spiked his wife's Gatorade with deadly doses of antifreeze in hopes of cashing in her $250,000 life insurance policy, had two court-appointed lawyers. Matthew Feinberg and Matthew Kamholtz pulled in $269,000 and $375,000, respectively, in the past five years. Feinberg declined to say what he earned on the Keown case, which ended in July with a guilty verdict.
"It's unfair," said Nancy Oldag, 58, of Missouri, the mother of Keown's murdered wife, Julie. "I feel sorry for the people of Massachusetts."
The CPCS budget has more than doubled since fiscal year 2003, skyrocketing from $95.5 million to $185 million last fiscal year - mostly for pay raises approved by the Legislature two years ago.
Those funds pay for the salaries of the agency's full-time staff of 253 attorneys as well as fees to the nearly 3,000 private lawyers they call in on court-appointed cases.
Bay State district attorneys - who just chopped $3 million from their budgets - say the system is completely out of whack. They say the CPCS could cap costs by hiring more staff lawyers who earn the same as assistant district attorneys.
"It's absurd," O'Keefe said of what he calls the "enormous inequity" of the pay.
Anthony Benedetti, general counsel for the CPCS, defended the agency.

"Yes, our budget has gone up, and it's driven by caseload," Benedetti said, adding that CPCS attorneys represent not only criminals but kids in child welfare cases.

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