A capital murder trial in Pennsylvania has cost York County taxpayers over $16,000 in expert witness fees, with more to come when the case goes to trial in July. The defendant, unable to pay for his representation, is entitled to a complete defense which includes experts on pathology and mitigation who will testify on his behalf during the upcoming trial.
Pennsylvania County Pays Expert Witness Fees
Ross William Crawford, 44, is accused with first-degree murder for allegedly stalking and beating Cherylann Dowell, 53, to death in June of 2012. Prosecutors argue that since Crawford was under a no-contact order to stay away from Dowell after a history of abusing her, there is sufficient aggravating circumstance in the case to seek the death penalty. Pennsylvania law allows for the death penalty if aggravating circumstances of the crime elevate the heinous nature of the act, and prosecutors argue that Crawford had established a pattern of abuse and stalking that sufficiently raised his culpability to warrant a death penalty verdict.
As is required by the Constitution, jurors must determine whether or not any mitigating factors outweigh aggravating factors before issuing a death penalty verdict, and defense attorneys requested the court grant funding for use of expert witnesses to highlight mitigation. Additionally, defense attorneys requested funding for an independent pathologist to analyze the details of the Dowell’s death and, presumably, argue against the presence of aggravating circumstances that would suggest the death penalty is warranted.
From July 2012 to May 2014, the York County court approved a payment of $16,000 to pay for the two expert witnesses the defense team for Crawford has hired. Judge Gregory Snyder set a cap for the expert fees as follows: the pathologist, who charges $300 per hour, can be paid up to $3,000; the mitigation expert, who charges $100 per hour, has fees capped at $10,825; and a third expert witness, a psychiatrist who charges $500 per hour, has fees capped at $10,000. If all expert witnesses work to the capped amount, the total bill to be paid by the county will be $23,825. Add in the more than $9,000 in attorney’s fees, and the Crawford murder trial is costing York County significantly.
Capital Murder Trials Accumulate Fees
The Crawford trial is not a unique situation, but is a representative of the significant cost attached to capital murder trials. No matter how heinous the crime, every defendant has a right to a fair and vigorous defense which typically requires, among other fees, expensive expert witness testimony. Capital murder trials carry an additional cost due to the split phases of the trial: the guilt phase and, if necessary, a separate penalty phase. Expert witnesses are required for both portions of the trial, and in the Crawford case, the pathologist will be a part of the guilt phase of the trial while the psychiatrist and mitigation expert witness will contribute separately to the penalty phase.
Because defendants have a right to a complete defense, lack of funds cannot be a barrier to hiring expert witnesses for any criminal trial – although capital trials are more likely to grant leeway in expert witness requests. Like many counties, York County sets aside a significant dollar amount, $320,000 in 2015, to pay for professional services for indigent defendants such as psychiatric counseling or expert witness services. While tax payers may be turned off by the thought of contributing significantly to the defense of an accused murderer, the Constitution requires a fair criminal trial which typically requires expert witness testimony to analyze and explain facts of the crime.