When Florida’s governor ordered the execution of Broward double murderer Robert Henry in February, his two court-appointed defense attorneys filed a flurry of appeals in an unsuccessful bid to stave off the death penalty.
Their initial bill to taxpayers for just over one month’s work: $101,100 — including $390 for nearly four hours needed to review a court order just two sentences long.
The bill has sparked a rare battle in court, with state lawyers last week asking a Broward judge to award significantly less money to defense lawyers Kevin Kulik and Melodee Smith for their work on Henry’s defense. The lawyers billed for hundreds of hours of unnecessary work, according to the Florida Attorney General’s Office.
“We are concerned that these bills are not properly documented,” Assistant Attorney General General Jason Vail told the judge in asking that the total amount due to them be slashed by 60 percent.
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Broward Circuit Judge Peter Weinstein, who raised concerns about the bills but acknowledged death penalty cases are “different,” must now decide how much to award the two lawyers. No date has been set for his final ruling.
Kulik, for his part, told the judge at a hearing last week that he has since reduced the bill by over $9,000, and the original bill did contain some errors, including 3.9 hours billed for reading the two-sentence order.
“I don’t want to be perceived as trying to get some sort of windfall,” said Kulik, who stressed the $100-an-hour rate is far lower than most lawyers charge for similar appeals work.
Florida executed Henry in March for the gruesome 1987 murders of Janet Cox Thermidor and Phyllis Harris at a Deerfield Beach clothing factory.
Henry tied up and beat Harris on the head with a hammer, and then battered Thermidor. He doused both with a flammable liquid, torched them and fled.
Thermidor survived just long enough to identify Henry as the killer in a taped statement to police. He was convicted at trial. Henry was convicted at trial one year later.
After years of unsuccessful appeals, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed Henry’s death warrant in March.
Kulik, who at the time was representing another accused killer facing the death penalty in Broward, was court appointed along with Smith to handle the last-ditch appeals.
The lawyer asked the Florida Supreme Court to get off the Henry case, a move the justices rejected.
Over the course of 34 days, Kulik and Smith filed over a dozen different pleadings in various courts, all of which ultimately were rejected. The thrust of their defense: challenging Florida’s lethal injection method of execution, an issue that has raised controversy across the country.
Kulik says he worked “essentially every day, all day” during that stretch, reviewing records, doing legal research and preparing experts.
In an interview, Kulik said the billing errors came because a paralegal, and then his co-counsel, prepared the initial paperwork. He said he is “one of the few lawyers in town” with the expertise to handle death penalty appeals and he normally charges $500 an hour or more.
“I did this because I consider it an important thing for people to have representation,” Kulik said. “I lost a lot of money on this case.”
During last week’s hearing, Smith broke down in near tears recalling her client’s execution. “It’s very traumatizing for a lawyer to be involved in this process,” she said.
In another South Florida case, a Miami-Dade judge last week awarded a total of $58,440 to two lawyers for their representation of child killer Juan Carlos Chavez in the final weeks before he was executed in February. Husband-and-wife team Andrea and Robert Norgard billed for nearly 600 hours of work.
In Henry’s case, the two lawyers billed for over 1,000 hours of work overall. Unlike the legal fees requested in Chavez’s case – which drew no objections from the Attorney General’s Office – Henry’s bill included work on an “evidentiary” hearing in state court aimed at exploring the lethal-injection issue.
The Attorney General’s Office said Kulik and Smith “overworked the case by performing almost six hundred hours of unnecessary work,” researching legal issues outside the scope of the lethal injection appeal.
At one point, Kulik billed three separate times – over 19 hours, to the tune of $1,900-plus – for reading 173 pages of a trial transcript that dealt with questioning of potential jurors, an issue not part of the appeal, according to the state.
The lawyers also billed identical hours for meetings, though there was little detail about the meetings, the state noted in court documents.
Tallahassee’s Justice Administrative Commission, the state agency that handles payments to court-appointed lawyers, also raised concerns.
“I don’t believe the court can have confidence in the accuracy of Mr. Kulilk’s billing,” JAC lawyer Bradley Bischoff told the judge.