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Westmoreland County to expand program to provide lawyers when public defenders have conflict

| Monday, Jan. 21, 2013, 12:02 a.m.

Westmoreland County judges will spread the wealth among local defense lawyers by expanding a program being formulated to hire lawyers to handle certain criminal cases.

President Judge Gary Caruso said last week that overwhelming response from the county's defense lawyers prompted officials to delay the start of the program and consider doubling the number of lawyers hired to represent clients in cases in which the public defender's office has a conflict of interest.

Originally, plans called for hiring five lawyers this month.

“We were so impressed with the quality of the applicants ... so we thought we'd expand the number of attorneys acting as conflict counsel,” Caruso said. “We didn't expect there would be so many people who would make an application.”

The county received applications from 34 lawyers. Originally, officials said each of the five attorneys hired would be paid $40,000 a year to handle 75 cases.

Caruso said the county is now looking to hire 10 lawyers who will each be paid $20,000 annually to handle 38 cases. Each lawyer will be considered a private contractor not eligible for county benefits.

“It gives an opportunity to more lawyers, and hopefully it will help more lawyers earn an income from court appointments,” Caruso said.

The conflict counsel system, which is in place in about 25 other counties, will replace the current method used in Westmoreland County, whereby dozens of private lawyers are appointed by individual judges to represent indigent defendants who cannot be represented by public defenders.

In 2012, the county paid more than $305,000 for court-appointed lawyers. Administrators said the conflict counsel system will pay out $200,000 to lawyers, although additional funds will be needed to pay lawyers who are appointed to represent murder defendants.

Although the judges have said they want to hire more lawyers, Court Administrator Paul Kuntz said he must survey applicants to determine whether candidates would accept half the pay for half the cases.

“We have to see if there is interest in a reduced caseload,” Kuntz said.

He suggested some of the applicants may withdraw if the total pay is reduced.

“If there is interest, we'll go with the 10 lawyers,” Kuntz said.

Judges are expected to select the conflict counsel lawyers to begin representing clients in March, Kuntz said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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