Murder trial costs top $300,000

By SCOTT NORTH

Herald Writer

Snohomish County has spent roughly $300,000 this year on just two murder cases, and that figure could climb even higher if it gets socked with medical costs linked to a convicted double murderer’s suicide attempt, officials said Monday.

The county totaled its expenses in the cases of Charles Ben Finch and Wade Earl Stewart to see if it qualifies for reimbursement under a new state program to defray the cost of prosecuting defendants in aggravated murder cases, said Dan Clements, the county’s finance director.

Finch, 51, recently was the focus of a second sentencing trial for the 1994 murders of a blind man and a sheriff’s deputy near Cathcart. Stewart, 35, is charged with aggravated murder in the December 1999 rape and slaying of a 70-year-old Everett woman.

The county spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the cases but the costs still aren’t high enough to qualify for assistance under the state’s Extraordinary Criminal Justice Costs Act, Clements said.

To qualify, the county would have had to spend one-half of 1 percent of its general fund, or more than $756,000, Clements said.

"We are about $300,000," he said adding that the program, which was approved by state lawmakers in 1999, "is really designed to help some of the smaller counties."

Snohomish County could have hired, trained and equipped two additional sheriff’s deputies for the same amount of money it spent on the two murder cases, Clements said.

Although the county didn’t break down its aggravated murder costs by defendant, officials said most of the expense likely is associated with Finch.

An earlier death sentence in the case was tossed out by the state Supreme Court in 1999 because jurors saw Finch in handcuffs and a hobble. Prosecutors tried to reinstate the death sentence in a second trial. But that effort took a strange turn Oct. 24 when Finch attempted suicide by leaping off a second-floor jail balcony. He was paralyzed and remains in an Everett hospital receiving treatment.

The county’s costs for the Finch case could climb even higher if the state does not pay for the medical costs he incurred in the days immediately after the leap, the county’s analysis found.

Those costs are estimated at roughly $124,000, records show. Finch’s ongoing medical costs, estimated at about $2,000 for each day spent in critical care, are now the state Corrections Department’s worries.

Finch’s trial ended with jurors unable to unanimously decide whether he should have received the death penalty. That means he faces an automatic sentence of life in prison without possibility of release, although that sentence hasn’t been formally pronounced because of Finch’s medical problems.

A doctor on Monday told Superior Court Judge Ronald Castleberry that Finch is alert, responds to questions and has a good chance of survival, but he won’t be able to be moved from the hospital until after receiving an operation to stabilize his severed spine. It is unclear when that will happen.

Snohomish County prosecutors do not consider financial costs when deciding whether to seek a death sentence and "we’ve never had anybody in county government ask us to," said Jim Townsend, the county’s chief criminal deputy prosecutor.

Prosecutors are still trying to decide whether to seek death for Stewart. His trial has been delayed repeatedly by the defendant’s unwillingness to work with public defenders who had earlier been assigned to the case. He now has new lawyers, and the cost of his defense continues to be paid with public money.

Stewart’s trial is now scheduled for September 2001. Prosecutors have told the court they will decide in May 2001 whether to seek the death penalty.

Townsend said prosecutors will follow their usual procedure in reaching the decision, giving defense attorneys an opportunity to provide them with evidence about their client that would mitigate against a death sentence.

"The death penalty is a very complicated issue that is often oversimplified," he said. "Our biggest concern is surviving appellate review by the state Supreme Court and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals."

Experience shows that lengthy and complex appeals are difficult on victims’ families, Townsend said.

A report on the death penalty in Washington prepared by Chief Justice Richard Guy of the Washington Supreme Court found the average cost of a death penalty trial in Washington was more than $388,000 between 1997 and 1999, and that appellate review of death sentences takes more than 11 years, on average.

"There is no doubt that these cases are unlike all others, given the number of years their adjudication and review takes, the amount of money they cost and their uncertain results," Guy wrote.

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