There’s so many murder cases in SLO right now, the Public Defender’s Office is stretched thin

Tasked with representing an unusually high number of murder defendants — two of whom possibly face the death penalty — the San Luis Obispo County Public Defender’s Office is feeling a major staffing squeeze.

The heavy case load, duties of which are contracted to the private law firm San Luis Obispo Defenders, has been compounded by not only the two capital cases over the past year, but also a recent criminal justice reform measure and expanding court calendars.

While it’s unclear whether the county has ever represented two death penalty eligible defendants at once, prior to this year, its last capital case was tried in 2000.

Before that, its most recent death penalty case was in the 1980s, according to a staff report from the county Administrative Office.

On Tuesday, the county Board of Supervisors approved a staff recommendation to amend SLO Defenders’ contract to add one full-time attorney with a high level of felony case experience, as required by law, to participate in the defense of one of its two cases.

The new position comes with a one-time increased cost of $120,833 in Fiscal Year 2019-20, and an anticipated ongoing annual cost of about $152,000 beginning in Fiscal Year 2020-21.

According to the staff report, the law firm’s 3-year-old contract allows it to seek additional funds when new cases or laws result in “unforeseen increases in legal responsibilities.”

Patricia Ashbaugh, managing attorney of SLO Defenders, wrote via email Tuesday afternoon that her office had been in talks with the county Administrative Office to procure the additional attorney since April, a month after it received the second capital case.

She said she was pleased that county staff ultimately supported creating the position and that the board of supervisors saw fit to approve it.

Uptick in capital cases

San Luis Obispo County saw an uptick in murders over the past year, and a total of 12 defendants are currently facing ongoing murder cases (two of those defendants’ cases are suspended as they receive treatment at Atascadero State Hospital, and another case is a murder case involving DUI).

As of Tuesday, SLO Defenders was representing four of those murder defendants, including the two capital cases of Carlo Fuentes Flores and Daniel Raul Rodriguez Johnson.

A public defender was appointed to the case of Fuentes Flores in December 2018. The 42-year-old Paso Robles man is accused in the alleged burglary, rape and murder of 62-year-old hair stylist Nancy Woodrum. She was missing for seven months before Fuentes Flores allegedly led investigators to her body in a remote spot off Highway 58.

In January, attorney William McLennan, who worked on the capital cases of serial killer Rex Krebs and of Dystiny Myers’ murderer Ty Hill, was appointed by the court to assist the Public Defender’s Office in representing Fuentes Flores.

In March, the office was also appointed to defend Rodriguez Johnson, who is accused of double murder in the stabbing death of his nine-month pregnant girlfriend and their unborn child in a home the couple shared near Lake Nacimiento.

Johnson faces one count of murder for the killing of Carrington Jane Broussard, 27, and one count of murder for the death of the unborn fetus. Broussard was also the mother of two other children.

But due to the extreme amount of time and resources required to defend a death penalty eligible client, the American Bar Association and existing law requires capital cases be managed by two trial attorneys with a high level of felony experience.

The report states that SLO Defenders currently has four of its 13.5 experienced felony attorneys involved in the defense of the two cases in addition to their routine duties. Industry standard, however, as is done in Santa Barbara County, is to relieve attorneys in capital cases of all other duties, the report says.

The cases have put a “substantial burden” on the Public Defender’s Office; the American Bar Association says capital cases require an average of almost 1,900 hours to defend and 1,200 hours even when it’s resolved early by a guilty plea.

County staff estimates SLO Defenders’ two capital cases have added between 2,400 and 3,800 hours of work to the office’s current caseload. A standard work year includes 2,080 working hours.

The staff report, written prior to the arrest this week of three alleged Oceano 13 gang members for the shooting death of Daniel Fuentes Sr. in April, also noted that there were two other unsolved homicides that could be assigned to the office.

Despite Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision to place a temporary moratorium on carrying out capital punishment in the state for as long as he’s in office, prosecutors continue to pursue the death penalty in cases that are especially egregious.

San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow said previously that the death penalty has an important role in the American criminal justice system, and Newsom’s moratorium would not affect how his office prosecutes the “worst of the worst” cases.

“I think the main reason for the death penalty is to pay a part of a huge debt that the person owes to the victim and their family and society,” Dow said March 13. “It’s the ultimate punishment for the ultimate crime.”

Expanding court calendars

Murder cases aren’t the only significant burden to the Public Defender’s Office.

In response to 2014’s voter-approved Proposition 47 — which changed simple drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor and said felony theft has to involve valuables of more than $950 — San Luis Obispo Superior Court added an additional courtroom to handle an increase in felony cases.

After the initiative passed, the Public Defender’s Office’s felony cases increased 6% with an 8% increase in felony case hours, the report states. The number of hours required per felony court appearance increased by 58%.

At the same time, while the number of misdemeanor cases decreased 32% in 2015, the number of hours required to defend those cases grew by 44%, and the number of hours per misdemeanor court appearance increased by 20%, the staff report says.

In 2017, the court stopped providing early disposition misdemeanor court and replaced it with another trial courtroom. Since the change in calendars and the trial courtroom, the Public Defender needs a new attorney assigned to that new courtroom.

That’s because when a felony case goes to trial, the remaining felony court calendar for that courtroom is transferred to another courtroom, and one attorney needs to stay to defend the client during trial.

“The general caseload along with the addition of two capital cases is making this ‘work around’ difficult to continue,” the report reads.

In the 2018-19 Fiscal Year, the county’s Public Defender’s Office had a budget of about $7 million. In comparison, the District Attorney’s Office ran on a budget of roughly $18.4 million, more than two-and-a-half times that amount.

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Matt Fountain is The San Luis Obispo Tribune’s courts and investigations reporter. A San Diego native, Fountain graduated from Cal Poly’s journalism department in 2009 and cut his teeth at the San Luis Obispo New Times before joining The Tribune as a crime and breaking news reporter in 2014.