Costs of double-murder retrial strain Clallam budget

By Paul Gottlieb
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — The upcoming double-murder trial of Darold R. Stenson is stretching Clallam County's budget, with costs already at $546,499.

Those expenditures could hit $800,000 — mostly for two of Stenson's attorneys — by the time the former Sequim resident's five- to six-week retrial is over, county Administrator Jim Jones predicted last week.

The county has put $1 million in reserve to cover the cost of all murder trials this year.

The Stenson case likely will be the most expensive ever for Clallam County.

“I would be flabbergasted if there is anything in our history that was even half this cost,” Jones said.

“It would stand out like a sore thumb.”

Stenson, whose 1994 death-penalty conviction was overturned in 2012 by the state Supreme Court, is charged for a second time with two counts of aggravated murder involving the same two deaths.

He faced the death penalty the first time.

Now, Stenson faces life in prison without parole.

Stenson, 60, allegedly shot to death his wife, Denise, and his exotic-bird-farm business partner, Frank Hoerner, in March 1993.

Kitsap County trial

He will be tried at the Kitsap County Courthouse in Port Orchard, where jury selection is scheduled to begin Sept. 16 — and where court and law enforcement personnel will take part in the proceedings, which will take place 81 miles away.

A change of venue was granted in April, adding travel and overnight-lodging costs to the county's bill for retrying Stenson.

Superior Court Judge S. Brooke Taylor and a court reporter will make the journey to Port Orchard for the duration of the trial and will stay there three nights a week for the Monday-through-Thursday proceedings.

The largest single Stenson-case-related expense has been incurred in Superior Court, where the total so far is $503,299 as of Aug. 29.

Of that amount, $438,075 has been billed for attorney fees for Stenson's three out-of-county lawyers.

The county also has been billed $63,164 for expert services and $2,061 for witness fees.

At first, Taylor limited attorneys Blake Kremer of University Place and Sherilyn Peterson of Seattle to 300 hours of billable hours on the case.

When he realized that was not enough to get through pretrial motions, Taylor increased the limit to 500 hours.

Now, instead of capping their hours, Taylor has set a weekly limit on the amount the county can be billed for Kremer's hours.

Peterson is now working on the case pro bono and has not billed the county since March.

No cap on lead attorney's hours

There is no cap on the hours of Stenson's lead attorney, Roger Hunko of Port Orchard.

“It is not appropriate for me to restrict how much time he can spend on the case, in my opinion, any more than I would restrict the prosecutor,” Taylor said.

Kremer and Hunko both work at reduced hourly rates that Taylor would not divulge.

In addition, Peterson has done “a substantial amount” of pro bono work on the case, Taylor said.

“That's going to continue through the trial,” he said.

“Dozens and dozens if not hundreds of hours of time are on a pro bono basis.

“That's a good effort by the defense team to respond to my repeated insistence that the expenses be kept under control and be reasonable for the job at hand,” Taylor said.

“In all honesty, the defense attorneys are concerned about the amount of money that's being spent, but it is what it is.”

Exactly what the weekly caps are is “privileged information,” as are the defense team's itemized expenses, Taylor said.

He has sealed those records so the defense team's strategy is not revealed to the prosecution, he said.

“Underlying this is, nobody wants to do this a third time.”

Jones said the Prosecuting Attorney's Office already has “blown through” its $5,000 annual credit card limit, primarily because of Stenson-related travel costs.

Jones said he expects an emergency request from the Prosecuting Attorney's Office for the fourth quarter of this year.

Witnesses must be flown from all over the country for the trial, and a combined total of at least 80 of them are expected to testify.

Of county Prosecuting Attorney Deb Kelly's 40 to 50 witnesses, nine must be flown in from out of state, she said.

The case also has had an impact on county law enforcement.

Sheriff's costs

Last week, Sheriff Bill Benedict submitted a budget-emergency request to county commissioners for $22,500 for a part-time criminal analyst.

The board will consider Benedict's request at a public hearing at 10:30 a.m. Sept. 24.

Benedict already has incurred $43,900 in Stenson-case-related costs for three investigators in 2012 and 2013.

“A legitimate question is, what is a legitimate defense?” Benedict said Friday.

“We spend millions and millions for people we accuse of murder, and at some point, we have to acknowledge that that is a huge expense.

“Every year, I have to defend virtually every dime I spend. I'm just concerned.”

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5060, or at pgottlieb@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: September 08. 2013 12:18AM
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