Nearly a decade after five reputed members of a street gang known as the Terrorist Boyz were charged in connection with nine murders and dozens of shootings, the first defendant has pleaded guilty in a legal saga that holds a unique distinction:
Taxpayers have been billed $4.2 million to help defend the men — making it the most expensive death-penalty case in recent Florida history. And it’s far from over.
The case’s plodding path though the legal system underscores this: Defense against the death penalty is by far more expensive in Miami-Dade County than anywhere else in the state.
Miami-Dade accounts for 38 percent of all billings in Florida but only 18 percent of the state’s cases.
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And taxpayers have been billed $50 million for court-appointed defense lawyers, investigators, experts and others in Miami-Dade in 352 first-degree murder cases stretching back to the late 1990s, according to a Miami Herald analysis of state records. That’s more than triple the cost spent in the next-highest county, Broward, where $13.8 million was spent, albeit on 131 fewer cases.
Of the $50 million billed over the years, $47.4 million was paid, with the remaining money waiting to be processed on pending cases.
Florida’s highest-paid capital litigation lawyer, Terry Lenamon of Miami, has earned $5 million over the course of 59 capital cases since 2000. He doesn’t shy away from the distinction, pointing out that he has kept all but two clients off Death Row, and one of those had his sentence overturned on appeal.
“It’s money well spent. In many places in Florida, there is very little spent on the death penalty and there is a rush to complete the cases,” said Lenamon, who founded a nonprofit group called the Florida Capital Resource Center that assists lawyers in death-penalty cases. “I have the responsibility to make sure no stone is left unturned. It’s a very expensive proposition, but there is a simple solution: End the death penalty.”
So why is Miami so much more expensive? The answer lies in the complicated process of how death-penalty cases unfold after a grand-jury indictment.
In Miami-Dade, a small but seasoned group of defense lawyers get court appointed to handle death-penalty cases. Their task: Convince a committee of senior prosecutors to recommend dropping the death penalty as punishment for someone accused of first-degree murder.
But the process can last years as the bills rack up. Eight years, for instance, passed before prosecutors waived the death penalty in December against Robert St. Germain, 34, the first of the alleged Terrorist Boyz to close his case. He finally pleaded guilty Friday to two murders, half-a-dozen attempted murders and a firebombing.
The bill to defend St. Germain was $1.03 million, according to state records. His sentence: 12 years in prison, of which he has served nine. The four others are awaiting trial and still face the death penalty.
Each side blames the other for legal foot-dragging.
Defense lawyers insist that prosecutors simply take too long to waive the death option, perhaps hoping to use the potential punishment to force a plea deal. But prosecutors say defense lawyers wait too long to provide “mitigation” —— a thorough background investigation on a defendant needed to waive the death penalty.
“The mitigation is everything. It’s important to get that information as early as possible,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said. “The mitigation can help us resolve these cases quicker and fairly, not only for the defendants but for the victim’s grieving family members.”
Both sides say that despite the high costs and delays, the system works, limiting the county’s application of the ultimate punishment.
Prosecutors point out that that in a county as large as Miami-Dade, relatively few, only the worst-of-the-worst killers, face execution — just five Miami-Dade inmates from the past decade are currently on Death Row, compared with 26 from the Jacksonville area in that same time period.
And Miami defense lawyers insist that their work saves lives, with most succeeding in getting the death penalty waived before trial.
Said David S. Markus, the second-highest paid lawyer who has billed for $3.1 million on capital cases over the years: “We get a flat rate of $100 an hour. That’s way below the market value — our work is worth between $300 and $400 an hour because of the expertise and experience the lawyers have. We have way more death-penalty cases in Miami, and we have a much more aggressive defense bar.”
The financial data were provided by Florida’s Justice Administrative Commission, which handles billing for clients who cannot afford to hire their own defense lawyers. The statistics do not offer a complete picture of the pre-trial costs of the death penalty in Florida — they do not take into account defendants represented by the Miami-Dade Public Defender’s Office or the taxpayer-funded Regional Conflict Counsel Office, which employ salaried lawyers who do not bill by the hour.
The commission did not begin handling death-penalty litigation billing until 2004, although some of those criminal cases began years earlier.
Former senior Miami-Dade prosecutor Abe Laeser said he believes defense lawyers intentionally drag out cases because of the hourly rates. “The easiest solution is to not make it so lucrative,” Laeser said.
There is little chance that the process will speed up anytime soon. For the near future, death-penalty trials remain mostly in limbo in Florida.
The reason: The Florida Supreme Court is weighing whether juries need to be unanimous in meting out the death penalty, as is required by nearly every state that still has capital punishment. The state’s high court is also mulling whether a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision ruling that Florida’s sentencing scheme is unconstitutional means new sentences for hundreds of Death Row inmates.
But at Miami’s criminal courthouse, many newer capital cases are still chugging along as overworked detectives labor to finish their reports, prosecutors pore over evidence, and defense lawyers consult experts and schedule depositions. Judges are part of the process, too — they must approve many of the defense fees.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Nushin Sayfie, who heads the administration of the criminal division, acknowledged that system is often overburdened and can lead to delays and higher costs. And judges are cognizant that every step of death-penalty litigation is scrutinized by the higher courts that can reverse a conviction, she said.
“Judges here, when we do trials, we want to do it right the first time,” Sayfie said.
That means judges do not hesitate to approve money for extra defense experts or witnesses, and bills for the lawyers, said retired Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Stanford Blake, who also oversaw administration in the criminal court.
“I can tell you that as a judge who looked over fees, I went over every single bill, and there were times we cut a little here and there. But what they charge is totally reasonable for the work they did,” Blake said. “Do they get results? Absolutely. Do I feel comfortable if I have to impose the death penalty that someone was well represented? Absolutely.”
In Florida, only people indicted by a grand jury of first-degree murder are eligible for the death penalty.
By law, prosecutors must file a notice of intent to seek the death penalty within 45 days. With a window so small, they file it on every first-degree indictment so as not to lose their ability to seek execution later.
After someone is indicted, the Public Defender’s Office or the Regional Counsel office is normally appointed to represent them.
But if there is some a conflict, a judge must appoint a private lawyer. Since the early 1990s, those in Miami have been drawn from a pool of lawyers certified to handle death-penalty cases. Just 26 are qualified to handle death cases, although the local court system is considering tweaking rules to expand the number of attorneys who can handle death cases.
In each death-penalty case, two lawyers are automatically appointed, with one in charge of handling the mitigation that might persuade prosecutors — or jurors at trial — to forgo execution.
The waiver is sometimes relatively quick. At 21 and with a history of mental illness, Matthew Guzman was indicted for two murders in 2011. Within three months, his lawyers — not private attorneys but the Public Defender’s Office — began submitting mitigation evidence. By March 2012, prosecutors waived the death penalty; he is still awaiting trial.
For Stephenson Charles, accused in 2009 of the murder of a North Miami pawnshop owner, that included the hiring of a mitigation specialist ($82,066.95), a neuropsychologist ($14,266.13), a psychologist ($11,155), a researcher on intellectual disabilities ($16,009.35) and even Marvin Dunn, a retired university professor who often testifies about the abject conditions of young black men growing up in the inner city ($6,300).
The mitigation, however, was not filed until March 2013. Then the case cycled through various prosecutors and judges, and the defense turned over a second request to waive the death penalty in August 2015.
Prosecutors officially waived the death penalty one month later. Charles is now set for trial in January. The total cost to taxpayers so far: $429,590.15, for the lawyers, battery of experts, transcripts and other services.
“We thought we had laid out a pretty good case for them to waive the death penalty much sooner,” said his former attorney, G.P. Della Ferra. “We did a lot of work in this case.”
In Miami-Dade, unlike other jurisdictions, the decision on whether to waive the death penalty is weighed by a committee of senior prosecutors who produce a detailed memo explaining the decision, which is ultimately made by the state attorney herself. Because of concerns over defense delays, prosecutors in recent years began detailing the dates when the lawyers provided the mitigation.
“These defendants face the ultimate punishment, and that requires us to scrutinize and analyze these cases thoughtfully,” Fernandez Rundle said. “All documented, because these cases last decades and it’s important to have that for future generations to see.”
As for the Terrorist Boyz, the case is certainly more complex than most.
Prosecutors are still seeking the death penalty against St. Germain’s co-defendants: Benson Cadet, Max Daniel, Frantzy Jean-Marie and the purported ringleader, Johnny Charles, known as the “Angel of Death.”
They are blamed for a bloody gang war that rocked North Miami-Dade in 2002 and 2003. The case, in which indictments came in 2007, is built largely on the testimony of fellow gang members and associates who took deals to testify against the five main players.
The prosecutors on the case, Stephanie Silver and Bill Howell, annually earn $78,609 and $138,205, respectively.
There are over 400 witnesses and thousands of hours of jail calls in evidence, all of which had to be reviewed by defense lawyers billing by the hour. So far, $3.5 million of the $4.2 million in bills have been paid out, with most of it going to legal bills.
Other expenses include $224,748 for transcripts of witness depositions, nearly $80,000 for mental-health evaluations and at least $113,872 on travel-related expenses.
“We’re really doing the brain surgery of criminal law. When you look at how much we’re paid, it’s not excessive,” said defense attorney Scott Sakin, who is representing Cadet. “Especially in a case like this where you have over 400 witnesses. We’re held to such a high standard. Our clients’ lives are at stake.”
Miami Herald reporter Ann Choi contributed to this story.