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Ask Matt ... who pays for murder defendant's lawyers

Q. I noticed that in the Stroup murder trial the defendant is being represented by a public defender. How does that work?


If you are charged for a crime where the punishment can include jail time (probably not our Lightning readers) you must prove to the judge that you can’t afford legal representation. The court has two options: appoint a private defense attorney from “the list” or turn your defense over to the NC Public Defender Office. There are about a dozen names on the attorney list for Henderson County. These attorneys agree to take cases ranging from misdemeanors to felonies and they are compensated at $60 per hour. Lawyers fresh out of law school seeking courtroom experience often get their names on the list.
The second option is to employ the Public Defender Office (PDO), which handles crimes committed in Henderson, Transylvania or Polk counties — Judicial District 29B. Not all counties in the state have a PDO; ours was established in 2008. Before that, all qualified local attorneys could be called on for public defense work. There are eight attorneys in the District 29B office, four of which work in the Grove Street Courthouse. In the past six years, they handled almost 14,000 cases. I spoke to two attorneys – Beth Stang, who has 13 years PDO experience and is certified for higher level felony cases, and Zachary Neill, who is in his 10th year. “We don’t plea out every case we get,” said Stang who wanted to dispel a myth she has often heard. “We work here in the trenches and yes, our attorneys do jury trials.” Stang said that drugs and DWIs predominate the cases her office handles. “Another myth is that we only get paid if we win a case,” said Neill. “We present our defense for what is best for the client. We are all state employees. We get paid, win, lose, or plea a case.”
There are no Spanish-speaking attorneys in the PDO but if needed, the court will provide an interpreter. “The number of those cases are lower than you would imagine,” said Neill. “Most of those defendants quickly hire private attorneys plus there are several attorneys on the list that are bilingual.” Neill said he can represent as many as 30 people in both district and superior courts on a given day. Stang shared that one must get comfortable talking to people in jail because that’s where the clients are. Both Stang and Neill agreed that PDO work is often grueling and that each could easily transition to private practice but the public defender job is a truly unique but satisfying profession.
Phillip Michael Stroup II has two attorneys paid by the State of North Carolina. Stroup is charged with the 2017 murder of Tommy Bryson. It has been reported that Stroup now has two new appointed attorneys — Mark Melrose of Waynesville and Sarah Ziomek of Forest City. Murder cases require a higher level of state certification for a public defender. I spoke to Rob Sharp, North Carolina Capital Public Defender. Sharp, heads the state office in Durham that only handles capital crimes. He said in cases where the state is seeking the death penalty the lead and associate attorneys are paid $90 per hour. He did not respond to my question of how much pre-trial work would be turned over to Melrose and Ziomek. But Sharp did comment on the office workload, “Busy, regrettably busy.”

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