Alabama DA: Capital cases could bankrupt already tight budget

Alabama DA: Capital cases could bankrupt already tight budget

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Alabama's district attorneys are once again fighting a case they can't seem to win: proper funding.

DA Randall Houston has watched his budget shrink by 34 percent over the last decade, calling this fiscal year an all-time funding low. Houston says his office is lucky to make payroll and anticipates the lack of resources to pose an issue in prosecuting capital cases.

"There's no district attorney that wants to say, "I can't try this case because I don't have the money'"," Houston said. "But eventually it will happen."

Houston's Judicial Circuit covers Elmore, Autauga, and Chilton counties. He is already giving his budget a critical look as the office will likely need to hire an expert witness for a resentencing in January.

"We are going to have a hearing on a juvenile that was sentenced over 20 years ago for capital murder and received life without the possibility of parole," Houston said.

In 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders. This ruling also covers those who were sentenced prior to the ruling.

"If we elect to ask the court to keep him in prison for life without parole, I suspect the defense will ask for a mitigation expert," Houston explained. "In a perfect world, we would hire a mitigation expert to counter that. The problem is, I don't have the money. I don't have $10,000 in reserve to hire a mitigation expert to come and counter the findings of the defense's mitigation expert."

Without a reserve, Houston fears a major capital murder case would put his office in bankruptcy. He quickly cited his office's work on the 1999 murder case involving victim Shannon Paulk and suspects that case would cost his office no less than $100,000 to prosecute.

"In the last six months to a year, we have sent many items to Quantico, Virginia [location of the FBI] and other states for highly specific testing," Houston explained.

"If the basis of our prosecution rested upon that expert testimony or scientific evidence, and we had to have those scientists come in and testify, there's no general fund for me to go to, to pay for that," Houston said. "My office has to pay for that."

Houston says the only solution would be to ask for emergency funding from the city, county, and the state. The state's allocation funds roughly half of Houston's office, various imposed fees fund the other half which have decreased by nearly 50 percent.

"Our worthless check unit brought in a third of our budget," Houston stated, "but no one writes checks anymore."

Houston recently met with the local legislative delegation and explained his concerns. He said the lawmakers appeared eager to assist with the budget issues in the next legislative session.

"We can have the best laws in the country. If we don't have the prosecutors to enforce them, what good does it do?" Houston asked. "District attorneys have continued to do their job with less and less.  We don't want to alarm our communities. Our job is to protect our communities."

As the funding fades, The 19th Judicial Circuit's cases are increasing by the year, making it one of the largest circuits in the state.

"I have nine lawyers that serve three counties and represent 180,000 constituents," Houston explained. "We average around 40,000 or more cases a year. There's no law firm in this state or country that could do that with nine lawyers and be effective."

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