As the first case involving the May 2015 Twin Peaks shootout appears heading to trial, McLennan County officials continue to plan for the potential astronomical costs related to the one-of-a-kind legal proceedings.
Houston attorney Casie Gotro, who represents biker Jacob Carrizal, has announced she is representing the Bandidos Dallas chapter president for free. So that will save the county money, along with other bikers who have hired their own attorneys instead of relying on county-funded, court-appointed attorneys.
About 70 of the 154 indicted bikers have court-appointed attorneys, but the majority of those attorneys haven’t sent bills to the county yet, according to county records.
Because of the uncertainty of the number of bikers who will be going to trial, whether those following Carrizal will seek changes of venue, which drive up trial costs dramatically, how much expert witnesses will bill the county and a variety of unknown factors, county officials really have no way to budget for the millions of dollars the Twin Peaks cases are expected to cost.
The handful of lawyers who have taken the forefront and who have been pushing for speedy trials for their clients are hired, so the county won’t be paying them. Others who are court-appointed are keeping a lower profile, presumably while reviewing the four terabytes worth of evidence turned over to them by prosecutors in the unique, convoluted case.
According to figures supplied by McLennan County Auditor Stan Chambers’ office, McLennan County has paid out $230,751 so far in Twin Peaks-related expenses. Those expenses include fees to court-appointed attorneys, a court-appointed investigator and lawyers hired to represent two elected county officials in federal civil rights lawsuits and grievances.
The Tribune-Herald reported April 23 that the county had paid out $208,239 in Twin Peaks-related bills. So roughly $22,000 in bills have come in since April, Chambers said.
Of that amount, $20,149 was paid to Kevin Fisk, a private investigator who is county-appointed but working with Gotro on Carrizal’s case. Fisk, a former investigator with the Waco Fire Department, sent payment requisition forms to the county April 18, June 5 and Sept. 14.
Two of the three forms were not subject to Public Information Act requests and could not be viewed because 19th State District Judge Ralph Strother ordered them sealed before Gotro successfully got Strother recused from Carrizal’s case.
Such requisition forms can be sealed if the defense requests it out of fear that prosecutors, or anyone with a Public Information Act request, could review the documents and learn the names of defense witnesses who were interviewed or other elements of defense strategy.
Strother, who declined comment because of the recusal, found Carrizal indigent at a previous hearing after Gotro asked for Fisk to be paid by the county.
After Strother’s recusal, Carrizal’s case was transferred to Judge Matt Johnson’s court. When Johnson was presented a bill by Fisk, he required that Carrizal, an employee of the Dallas, Garland and Northeastern Railroad, fill out an application for pauper’s oath listing his financial information. Johnson upheld Strother’s indigent finding and approved Fisk’s request.
Fisk and Gotro did not return phone messages for this story.
Johnson also declined comment on Twin Peaks expenses.
It is rare but not unheard of for judges to approve requests for court-appointed investigators or expert witnesses, even in cases in which attorneys are retained or say they are working for free or “pro bono.” Defendants who hire attorneys on their own still might be considered indigent if they had to clean out their bank accounts to pay their lawyers and to post bail and have no other available assets, officials said.
In Johnson’s court, court-appointed attorneys are paid $75 an hour for preparation time and $80 an hour while they are in court. Court-appointed investigators are paid $55 an hour, but sometimes less for travel time.
Johnson typically allows $750 for investigators in first-degree felony cases, $500 for second-degree felonies, $400 for third-degree felonies and $300 for state-jail felonies. Attorneys know they can ask the judge for more investigative funds if that money runs out.
In Carrizal’s case, Fisk, who signed on with Gotro in April, would have worked 366 hours at $55 an hour to earn $20,149. That amounts to nine 40-hour work weeks.
No one argues that the Twin Peaks cases are typical in any respect. McLennan County officials are plowing new ground, and defense attorneys so far have left no matter unchallenged, including the recusal of Strother, the failed recusal of Johnson and attempts to disqualify District Attorney Abel Reyna.
The judges, in a sense, are viewing the cases the way they would a death-penalty case, knowing they need to give attorneys the resources they say they need because every issue and every ruling will be scrutinized on appeal should the bikers be convicted.
Still, Fisk’s bills, thus far, raised some eyebrows around the courthouse.
Longtime private investigator Ed McElyea said the only time he submitted payment requisitions approaching what Fisk has filed was in a capital murder case that stretched out for more than three years.
“The judges have always been fair to me and pay me appropriately,” McElyea said. “I have been doing this 13 years and they trust me to be fair, and, in turn, I don’t over bill them.”
McElyea said he isn’t suggesting Fisk is over billing the county. He said he doesn’t know what his bill entailed, but he knows that prosecutors have released an unprecedented amount of evidence to the defense that will require many hours to review.
An itemized list justifying Fisk’s bill dated June 5 shows he traveled to Austin and Houston, obtained and served multiple subpoenas, researched tapes of jail phone calls, conducted interviews, reviewed data recovered from cellphones and worked on a witness list, among other duties.
Carrizal is set for trial Oct. 9, 29 months after the shootout that left nine dead and more than a dozen wounded.