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Manatee County’s gang cases taxing courts

MANATEE — Attorney Michael Hanson estimates he probably would have charged a private client as much as $100,000 for the work he has completed so far in defending Ryan Simmons against state racketeering charges.

And that does not include the bill for Simmons’ trial at the Manatee County Courthouse over the next two weeks, Hanson said.

Hanson knows that, as the appointed defense attorney, he likely will have to settle for a lot less. If he had realized earlier how much taking the case would cost him financially, Hanson says he would have begged off — just as have many attorneys who local judges appoint to represent defendants in the legally complex racketeering cases.

Judges turn to private attorneys when a defendant cannot afford to hire a lawyer and local and regional public defender’s offices have a conflict of interest, such as in a racketeering case where there usually are multiple defendants with potentially competing interests.

But in Manatee, as an appeals court ruling highlighted last week, few private attorneys are willing to take on such cases.

And that raises questions about the viability of future prosecutions against street gangs that law enforcement blames for much of the violence and other crimes in Manatee in recent years.

Hanson says he will be pleased if he can recover a fraction of what would be his normal fee from the state, which appointed the Tampa attorney because Green could not afford to hire a lawyer.

Green is accused of being a member of a drug-dealing street gang, the 3rd Shift, and has prior arrests on charges he was dealing cocaine. But no defense attorney in Manatee County would take on the Simmons case, with the mountain of work associated with Manatee’s many racketeering prosecutions.

Over the past few years, as Manatee faced increasing gang violence, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, in conjunction with the state attorney general’s office, began using state racketeering laws to target gangs as ongoing criminal enterprises.

Instead of charging defendants with individual crimes, statewide prosecutors brought racketeering cases based on a totality of a person’s crimes, and accused the person of committing their crimes to benefit their particular street gang.

So far, three street gangs have been targeted — the latest being 3rd Shift — with more than a dozen gang members getting prison time.

State cut attorney funds

The new approach, however, also coincided with a decision by the state Legislature to slash the amount of money spent to provide indigent defendants with an attorney. A defense attorney in another Manatee racketeering case said the state paid him less than $10,000 when his client took a plea deal before the case went to trial.

All of the racketeering cases involve multiple co-defendants, hundreds of witnesses and volumes of paperwork. Hanson has dozens of boxes of evidence with him at trial this week.

“It is an unbelievable amount of work. It has been a hardship,” said Hanson, who went to a lunch break Tuesday from the Simmons trial to find 14 voice mails from his regular practice. “Especially if it goes to trial, which this one has, two weeks is a lot of time to be away.”

It has also become a crisis for the Florida 12th Judicial Circuit, as the number of attorneys like Hanson willing to take on Manatee’s racketeering case is dwindling.

In 2007, about 15 attorneys in Manatee were on a voluntary appointment list, but that number has dropped to five, with only three attorneys volunteering to represent people accused of anything more serious than a second-degree felony.

Appeals court backs attorney

An appeals court has now weighed in, saying the local court could not force Bradenton attorney Gregory Hagopian to take one of the racketeering cases after he argued the workload would put him out of business.

The case against Terry Green, 21, also an accused member of 3rd Shift, includes 382 witnesses, 11 co-defendants, 176 police reports and nine previous criminal cases against Green compiled in seeking the racketeering conviction, Hagopian testified.

Lee Haworth, the 12th Circuit’s chief judge, had denied Hagopian’s request to withdraw from the case after involuntarily appointing him after several other attorneys either refused the case, claimed inexperience, or said they had a conflict of interest.

Haworth did allow for the state to pay more than the $2,500 allowed by the Legislature for a first-degree felony, entering an order to pay between $75 and $110 an hour for racketeering cases.

But Hagopian said the increase would not even cover the base $12,000 it costs a month to keep his practice open.

The Florida 2nd District Court of Appeal ruling sent the court back to the drawing board to find a defense attorney for Green, who has been in jail for more than a year, and also opened the door for other defense attorneys to refuse appointments.

“It was a victory for all defense attorneys,” said Hagopian. “I don’t think the state should be bringing these cases if the state doesn’t have the money to fairly pay an attorney to provide a person’s right to a defense.”

‘Having to cut corners’

Bradenton attorney Joseph Campoli says he knows Hagopian’s frustration, even testifying on Hagopian’s behalf as he sought to get off Green’s case. Like so many others, Campoli was involuntarily appointed to a racketeering case.

Campoli represented Johnny Vasquez, an accused gang member who has since pleaded guilty to racketeering. The Justice Administrative Commission, the state agency that oversees payment to appointed attorneys, paid Campoli less than $10,000 for the work he did on the case. Campoli estimates he would have charged a private client between $30,000 and $40,000 for the same amount of work.

It was something Campoli feared from the beginning, and he told Haworth so at a hearing where he asked to withdraw from the case. Haworth denied the request, which Campoli at first appealed. Later, he went ahead and took the case.

“I felt it was my duty to take the case, but now that I know the amount of work, I can say I would’ve fought harder to get off the case,” said Campoli. “You find yourself having to cut corners on the case because you are just not being paid and your business is suffering.”

Campoli said during one stretch he submitted a bill for $2,500, and the JAC responded it didn’t have the funds at the time to pay it.

Officials with JAC could not be reached for comment.

“The JAC is bleeding, the state has no money,” Campoli said. “Even if I was being promised to be paid right now at a higher rate due to the complexity and time it takes on these cases, I am not sure I would believe it.”

No one wants this case

And there is a lot on the line, with racketeering convictions based on jury verdicts so far in Manatee bringing an average prison sentence of 30 years. For Hanson, he also saw it as his duty to represent Simmons. But he would have asked off if he had known the work involved in defending his client.

“My client has defenses he believes in, and I believe in them, too,” Hanson said. “But an attorney should not have to go broke to ensure an individual’s constitutional rights.”

While local defense attorneys are being vocal about their concerns, officials with the attorney general’s office and the courts are not saying much about the appeals court’s ruling in the Hagopian case.

Haworth said he cannot comment because he still may preside over rulings in the case against Green, Hagopian’s former client.

“All I can say is we are again going to put out requests for someone in the legal community to step up and take his case,” Haworth said.

Officials with Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum’s office said the 2nd DCA’s ruling “will certainly affect our cases,” but spokeswoman Sandi Copes declined to answer further questions.

It remains to be seen how future racketeering prosecutions will proceed. Manatee Sheriff Brad Steube said his agency, along with the attorney general’s office, “will keep moving forward,” and that his investigators are working to build another case against an unnamed Manatee gang.

“They have to,” said Campoli. “It is their job and they are going to keep doing it because the fact is there are a lot of gangs in Manatee. But the question is, how are they going to pay for it?”

Calls to Gov. Charlie Crist’s office were not returned, but Stetson University College of Law Professor Robert Batey said it is an issue that can only be resolved by the Legislature.

“The Legislature has failed in their responsibility to provide adequate funding for its duty to defend the indigent,” said Batey. “They knew they were doing it in 2007 when this came up, and they went ahead and did it. So this problem is not going to go away.”

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