Crossroads now lacks death penalty defense attorneys

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

April 27, 2014 at 1:02 a.m.
Updated April 26, 2014 at 11:27 p.m.

Longtime Victoria attorneys Elliott Costas, left, and James "Jim" Beeler pose with Costa's Shih Tzu, Wilkie, at DeLeon Plaza. The dog has visited most of the area's courtrooms when the two defended  indigents charged with capital murder throughout the years. They have decided to no longer be on an appointed list for those cases.

Longtime Victoria attorneys Elliott Costas, left, and James "Jim" Beeler pose with Costa's Shih Tzu, Wilkie, at DeLeon Plaza. The dog has visited most of the area's courtrooms when the two defended indigents charged with capital murder throughout the years. They have decided to no longer be on an appointed list for those cases.

The only Crossroads attorneys who may be appointed to death penalty cases are ending that part of their practices.

The absence of Elliott Costas and James "Jim" Beeler from capital cases means Victoria County must appoint someone from out of town.

Officials say that attorneys' mileage and hotel stays could drive up the cost to taxpayers for what already are the most expensive cases.

The closest attorney is in Corpus Christi, 97 miles away; the furthest is in Denver City, 511 miles away.

Attorneys can be hired to defend a capital case, but unlike those appointed by the court, they are not required to have years of experience, a clean disciplinary record and hours of continuing education under their belts.

"What Jim and I do isn't extraordinary; what makes it extraordinary is that we volunteer for it," Costas said.

Currently, the county pays mileage using a standard set by the Internal Revenue Service, said Nora Kucera, the pretrial services coordinator, who tracks indigent defense and applies for grants.

That's 56 cents per mile driven for business.

Attorneys also don't have to get their accommodations or meals preapproved.

"They submit a voucher to the judge that's hearing the case in whichever court, and the judge will determine what payment will be made at that point," Kucera said.

Kucera will deliver a report to commissioners May 12 about the Texas Regional Public Defenders for Capital Cases.

The group, which is headquartered in Lubbock, also has certified attorneys throughout the state.

Instead of charging the county by the case, half of the group's yearly fee is based on the county's population. The remaining half looks at how many capital cases were filed in the past 10 years, Kucera said.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimated in 2013 that there were 90,028 people living in Victoria County.

Thirty capital murder cases have been filed in the county since 2003. Of those, the state sought the death penalty only three times. Thirteen cases were dismissed, according to the Victoria County District Clerk's Office.

DeWitt and Refugio counties pay the group.

"We got off the list because we see where systemically, the capital defense establishment is adopting an approach that violates our personal ethical standards," Costas said.

There have been instances in which appellate lawyers have asked trial attorneys, none of whom are local, to lie on affidavits and to say untrue, negative things about fellow counsel, he said.

He and Beeler are old school, though, he said.

They first teamed up in 1999 for a case they say was an "affair of the heart." Beeler had just moved from Houston to his hometown of Port Lavaca when he was appointed to represent Lino Ramirez.

When George Filley III was district attorney, Ramirez faced charges of murder and aggravated assault.

Ramirez was accused of breaking into his estranged wife's home, seeing her with another man, retrieving a large knife from the kitchen and stabbing them, killing the man.

Costas came on after former District Attorney Dexter Eaves got the case reindicted for capital murder.

The morning they were set to pick a jury, Beeler dropped a sheet of paper filled with names on Costas' table.

"This is your jury," he said.

"How do you know that? I don't know if I can get every one of them," Costas replied.

"Well, that's your problem," Beeler said.

Ultimately, the two got a jury seated that listened when they presented evidence of the couple's rocky past.

A jury found Ramirez, now 59, guilty of manslaughter. He's projected to be released from prison in 2015.

Costas and Beeler reminisced Tuesday and Wednesday in DeLeon Plaza alongside Costas' 16-year-old Shih Tzu, Wilkie - named for Victorian author Wilkie Collins, friend and protege of Charles Dickens who authored "The Moonstone" and "The Woman in White."

Wilkie was a sounding board in the pair's every planning session and has visited most of the area's courthouses.

The two say the job's stress level also leaves a lot to be desired.

"When you're on a death penalty case, that's all you do, and you have to turn private clients away and tell other counties to get you out of the court-appointed rotation. Then, when the case is over, you really have no work for about the next month," Costas said.

The Texas Indigent Defense Commission found that each month, private attorneys accepted about eight misdemeanor and 10 felony cases.

The stigma that comes with representing people condemned to die may also be why others are hesitant to join their ranks.

"A lot of times, a young guy is caught up in the dilemma of believing something is the right thing to do but thinking about how they have to pay bills next month or next week to support their family," Beeler said. "They think, 'If I do this, the DA won't agree with me, and what am I going to do if I can't get a plea bargain from the DA?'"

A list of those who may be appointed as the lead defense attorney on a death penalty case in the Fourth Administrative Judicial Region decreased from 35 to 28 from 2004 to 2012.

The list of those who may be appointed as second chair, however, increased from 60 to 78 during the same period, said Melissa Barlow Fischer, Bexar County's general administrative counsel.

Attorneys with the Regional Public Defender's Office, on average, have 20 years of experience and more training because their practice is specialized. They're evaluated once a year based on client service, teamwork, communication, initiative, flexibility and leadership, whereas solo practitioners do not usually have those safeguards.

The group is trying to make up the disparity in compensation between the defense and the state, too.

Studies also have shown they're more likely to get a client a term of years in prison versus life without parole.

Costas and Beeler last represented Tyrel Richards, convicted in March of capital murder and sentenced to life without parole.

One of the issues in the case dealt with bath salts' and embalming fluid's effects on the brain after Richards said he ingested them before committing the crime.

In the end, experts, including a Travis County medical examiner, a forensic psychiatrist from Cedar Park and and a University of Houston-Victoria professor of biology and biochemistry, along with investigation fees, transcripts and other expenses cost $75,883.25.

Attorney fees cost $58,043.75.

With the recent exonerations, some will argue the criminal justice system is broken, but Beeler doesn't think so.

"It's a problem not of the system but of the individuals working within the system - whether it be the judge who didn't supervise the attorneys, whether it was the defense attorney who was ineffective or whether it was the state being overzealous and overreaching. . All of those things have to be working together to make the system work," he said.

That's why they try to vigorously defend a client without driving up costs.

"The county bean counters need to look and see what the district attorney is doing to provoke some of the activity of the defense lawyers," Costas said.

Criminal District Attorney Stephen Tyler said it's understandable why they might want to pass on the torch because this type of litigation is tough.

"My decisions aren't driven by what's convenient or what's cheap. It depends on what is the law, what are the facts and what I think represents the constituents and the state of Texas," he said.

Costas and Beeler were appointed recently to represent Shawn Chapel, 33, who is charged with arson and capital murder in the Nov. 24 death of Daniel Lee Silgero, 66.

After that case is concluded, they will continue to represent and be appointed to represent individuals on other criminal matters.

Reflecting on whether their absence on capital murder cases will have an impact called up memories of a poster that used to hang in a college library Costas frequented.

"It said: 'If you think you're important, put your finger in a glass of water, remove it and see what mark you've left,'" Costas said, "The world will continue to revolve."



Powered By AffectDigitalMedia