Jacksonville’s Public Defender’s Office got a new type of bill Nov. 1
“Medical Examiner’s Office,” the bill said. “$250.00 MEO DEPO”
A new city law now requires the medical examiner to charge for depositions, testimony and even consultations in criminal cases. The Public Defender’s Office and the State Attorney’s Office don’t yet know just how much the new fees — $500 an hour — will affect their cases, but it’s just one added new cost on top of others.
The new law was requested by Mayor Lenny Curry on behalf of the medical examiner’s office.
Medical examiner Valerie Rao, however, declined to answer most questions, saying she only does what the city tells her to do.
Prosecutors and attorneys for poor defendants receive something called due-process funds from the state. Those funds are generally for expert witnesses. If the defendant is convicted, they are liable for reimbursement.
The state apportions the budgets based on how many cases each judicial circuit has and what types of cases they have. Prosecuting or defending a murder case requires more expert witnesses than a burglary, for example, and death-penalty cases require the most expert witnesses of all.
Florida’s due-process budgets already face strain because prosecutors are choosing to re-try hundreds of death-penalty cases that had unconstitutional sentences overturned.
On top of that, two United States Supreme Court cases determined state laws can’t automatically sentence juveniles to life in prison without a chance at parole, so each of those defendants must be re-sentenced. Both death penalty and juvenile sentencing usually require mental health expert witnesses, on top of medical examiner testimony.
Medical examiners are the chief death investigators for a given area of Florida. Though they’re appointed by the governor, counties pay their budgets. They’re medical doctors who conduct autopsies, run toxicology reports and try to determine the cause of death. Per capita, Jacksonville’s office had the second highest rate of deaths reported as homicides and the second highest rate reported as drug overdoses last year in Florida, meaning the doctors are probably more likely to be called to testify in prosecutions related to those deaths.
Both Public Defender Charlie Cofer and Chief Assistant State Attorney Mac Heavener said they didn’t think the new costs would affect cases in Jacksonville. When an office runs out of due-process money, the state can shift funds around to give attorneys more money.
In effect, the extra cost will be shared across Florida.
“Every additional cost that wasn’t there before makes the pot smaller for everybody,” said Fort Pierce Public Defender Diamond Litty, who sits on the state agency that gives out due-process money. “But I don’t think that is going to break the bank.”
Defendants who aren’t declared poor don’t receive state funds for expert witnesses, so they will have to pay out of pocket to depose medical examiners, even though the medical examiners are public employees.
In 2013, Rao received a major budget increase from the city. She had argued her office was overworked and the new money was essential for her efforts to get the office accredited. The office has since been accredited.
Since 2013, though, the number of deaths related to drugs has only increased.
In the period from 2015 to 2016, the number of accidental prescription drug deaths investigated by the Jacksonville Medical Examiner’s Office jumped 151 percent, going from 161 in 2015 to 404 in 2016, according to a new report issued last week by the state Medical Examiner’s Commission.
Rao declined to answer questions. She said she doesn’t know how much extra money this will bring her office.
“No opinions,” she said in an email. “I just do what I am asked to by City Council. They are responsible for City Government and they do what is best for the community.”
Tia Ford, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said Rao requested the change in fees.
A city council analysis of the bill estimated the changes would bring in about $85,000.
Some other medical examiner’s offices also charge for depositions and others choose not to for criminal cases. In the neighboring circuit that includes Gainesville, attorneys pay for depositions, but Public Defender Stacy Scott said it didn’t affect their budget much because they don’t have many murders. In Jacksonville’s other neighboring circuit, in St. Johns County, the medical examiner doesn’t charge any fees.
“Usually, generally, experts are paid,” said Florida State law professor Charles Ehrhardt. “They don’t volunteer their service. So in one way, this is consistent with what other experts do. On the other hand, this is a public official and generally public officials wouldn’t charge public entities. (Testimony) is just part of their jobs.”
Defense attorneys use depositions to find out what prosecutors’ witnesses plan to testify. That allows defendants to push back if they think a witness is wrong.
For example, earlier this year, a murder defendant in Jacksonville was released from jail after his defense attorneys pushed back on the associate medical examiner’s finding a woman died from blunt-force trauma. Afterward, the prosecutor told a judge that the medical examiner had changed his opinion and was now unsure if the woman’s death was accidental or a homicide.
Though the new cost applies to both prosecutors and defense attorneys, Heavener said he suspects the billing will impact the public defender’s office more than the state attorney’s office. But Heavener said a new fee meant his office had to stop letting interns tour the medical examiner’s office.
“The fee is not going to have the effect on our decision-making on whether or not we depose them,” Public Defender Cofer said. “If it’s case-appropriate to depose them, we’re going to depose them.”
Similarly, Heavener, the prosecutor, said that “we would not be jeopardizing a homicide prosecution. We’re not going to do anything different just because we have to pay a testimony fee.”