Proposed budget cut could delay Wake death penalty trials

Posted June 23, 2015

— Nathan Holden is accused of killing his in-laws at their Wendell home and trying to kill his wife last year. His trial is set for November, but it might be postponed because his state-appointed attorneys’ jobs are in jeopardy.

The Senate version of the 2015-16 state budget eliminates seven positions from the North Carolina Capital Defenders Office in Durham, including four lawyers who are handling 22 murder cases across the state.

If the positions are eliminated when the House and the Senate reach a compromise spending plan, the state will have bring in private attorneys who will need to get up to speed on the cases, costing time and money.

"We’re going to lose money in the short-term. We’re going to delay cases," said Tom Maher, executive director of the state Office of Indigent Defense Services, which includes the Capital Defenders Office.

"It’s vitally important for the system and for the defendant that the defendant be well-represented," Maher said. "A jury that’s going to be asked to make a decision – literally a life or death decision – should be presented with a full picture, not just of what the state says but the defense and the defendant’s background, so they have what they need to make and incredibly difficult decision."

The proposed cuts not only slow the court system, they also affect victims' families.

LaTonya Taylor survived the shooting that Holden is accused of, but her parents did not.

"I understand what the state is doing, but I would be devastated if the trial was delayed," Taylor said. "My family and I are ready to face this so that we can move forward and continue healing."

"It prolongs everything," said her brother, Sylvester Taylor. "It can be frustrating at times, but the outcome is out of our hands. We will just continue to move forward."

Three other death penalty trials are pending in Wake County: Travion Smith, who faces a September trial in the death of a woman in her North Hills apartment, Gregory Crawford, who is charged with killing two people in Fuquay-Varina, and Curtis Jackson, who is charged with killing a man in southeast Raleigh and setting a fire to cover up the crime.

Sen. Stan Bingham, R-Davidson, said state spending needs to be reined in, and with a crime rate on the decline, the Capital Defenders Office seemed like a logical choice for a cut.

"It was a rather large expense," said Bingham, co-chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Justice and Public Safety. "If you’ve got nine attorneys, you’ve got two cases (each) a year."

The local public defenders offices will be counted on to pick up some of the slack, but the state will have to use taxpayer money to hire private attorneys to defend many capital cases.

Wake County Public Defender Charles Caldwell said his staff handles more than 10,000 cases a year, most of them felonies, and doesn't have much time to spare on a death-penalty case.

"If an attorney is tied up representing a death penalty client, that’s going to take a good part of that attorney’s time," Caldwell said. "Our office is all but full with the murder cases it can take right now."

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  • Melissa Noderer Jun 24, 2015
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    Above all, the NC Legislature should be expanding the budget for our NC Courts and judicial system. Not weakening and eroding justice for all.