ACLU accuses Weber of cost-cutting in double-murder defense

Apr 23 2010
By Tim Gurrister (Standard-Examiner staff)




OGDEN — Saying Weber County is stepping on the constitutional rights of accused double-murderer Jacob Ethridge as a cost-cutting move, the Utah Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is seeking to join the case.

The Weber County Attorney’s Office in March filed a motion to remove Ethridge’s court-appointed attorneys, Randy Richards and Bernie Allen, because they are no longer contracted with the county for trial services.

The county changed its public defender system this year for a projected savings of $100,000. The veteran Allen was not offered a contract under the new system, and Richards is contracted only as an appeals lawyer.

“Having chosen to prosecute this matter as a capital case, Weber County has placed at stake not only Mr. Ethridge’s liberty, but also his life,” the ACLU writes in its brief seeking to join the case to argue against dismissal of Allen and Richards.

“Particularly when an individual’s life is on the line, Weber County’s interest in saving money simply cannot trump an individual’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel or his Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process and equal protection.”

Facing the death penalty, Ethridge is accused of shooting two women in downtown Ogden in July 2008 in what police said was a fulfillment of a yearlong violent fantasy. He turned himself in to police within hours of the killings, police said, and confessed.

The ACLU’s request and the county’s motion to replace Ethridge’s lawyers will be aired at Ethridge’s next court hearing, a May 7 status conference before 2nd District Judge W. Brent West.

In the brief, the ACLU writes that its interest in the case arises out of a larger concern for the quality of indigent defense — lawyers for those unable to hire lawyers — across the state as a whole.

“These efforts have coincided with national efforts to examine the continuing problems and constitutional inadequacies relating to indigent criminal defense throughout the United States,” Utah ACLU lawyers Karen McCreary and Marina Lowe wrote.

They point to a 2008 study that ranked Utah last among the states in indigent defense.

Using American Bar Association’s standards, called “10 Principles of a Public Defense System,” the study found Utah did not meet any of the 10 principles. Among the principles cited in the study by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association was Utah’s spending for indigent defendants, 48th among the 50 states at $5.22 per Utahn compared to $11.86 nationwide, the ACLU brief reads.

Utah, it adds, is one of only two states, Pennsylvania being the other, that provides no funding at the state level for basic indigent defense.

“The irregular, and almost entirely unregulated, county-by-county indigent defense ‘system’ that results from the lack of state oversight and disparate funding, training and access to resources experienced by public defenders is constitutionally inadequate and ripe for judicial challenge,” states the ACLU brief.

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