Friday, June 24, 2005

Debate over defense bills unresolved

Johnson's attorney defends charges made to county

Express Staff Writer

It's as clear as mud.

Despite the fact that attorneys on both sides had called a contract for convicted Bellevue murder Sarah Johnson's legal defense "unambiguous," testimony during a court hearing Thursday revealed clear ambiguities.

A six-week trial this winter in Boise for the 2003 double murder in Bellevue has cost county taxpayers close to $1 million. Blaine County has contended that public defender Bob Pangburn "blatantly" overcharged it by $60,000 for his services.

"Outside of this courtroom and even in some of the pleadings, they have categorized this as attempted theft," Pangburn said in court Thursday. "This is just a contract dispute."

"I resent that," county Prosecuting Attorney Jim Thomas shot back.

Thomas said he had merely accused Pangburn of overcharging.

Following a six-week trial that ended March 12, Johnson was convicted of shooting and killing her parents, Alan and Diane Johnson, at the family's Bellevue home on Sept. 2, 2003. The trial was moved to Boise to avoid a jury pool tainted by local media coverage.

Johnson will be sentenced during proceedings set for June 29 and 30 at the 5th District Courthouse in Hailey. Attorneys in the case continue to wrap up a number of motions filed by both sides following the trial.

The hearing Thursday before 5th District Judge Barry Wood was in response to Thomas' motion to reconsider the court's authorization of payment.

Testimony by former deputy prosecuting attorney Doug Nelson, who drafted provisions in the county's public defender contract, indicated room for genuine disagreement.

"The contract, on this issue, is ambiguous," Nelson concluded after being questioned by both sides.

Pangburn's term as public defender ended Sept. 30, 2004, but he was required to stay on as Johnson's attorney. The contract states that lawyers who continue working on cases that last beyond their contract's termination shall be paid $65 an hour. It also states that lawyers on murder cases shall be paid $65 an hour in addition to their monthly public defender's salary.

Pangburn contends those fees should be cumulative for an attorney working on a murder case that goes past his contract's termination. The county believes they should not. So the dispute is whether Pangburn should be paid $65 an hour or $130 an hour.

Nelson said that although the contract is ambiguous, his intent in drafting it was that the fees should not be added together.

Another issue is whether Pangburn can charge for the services of an associate attorney, Anita Moore. The county claims its contracts are with specific attorneys, and the work should not be assigned to others. Pangburn contends he has made it clear in all his cases that the county was hiring his firm, not just him.

The disagreement appears to have been unresolved for so long due to confusion over who was monitoring Pangburn's bills for the county. Wood said he believed attorney Doug Werth had been assigned that task. But in court Thursday, Werth said he had just been hired to attend two hearings to ask former 5th District Judge James May to require more itemization in the accounts. He said May had issued a stipulation to that effect, and to require subsequent bills to be forwarded to the court for review. Wood said he never saw such a stipulation in the file.

After two-and-a-half hours of argument and testimony, Wood ordered both sides to submit briefs on the issues within two weeks.

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