Elash earned the most in 2001 among court-appointed attorneys
Allegheny County paid $1.53 million for court-appointed attorneys to represent indigent clients last year, with Pittsburgh defense attorney John Elash heading the list at $136,641, according the administrative office of the Allegheny County Common Pleas Court.
Elash, who handled 33 cases, received more than $82,000 to represent killers Ronald Taylor and Joseph Cornelius last year — cases in which the prosecution sought the death penalty. Elash has consistently been at or near the top of the list of court appointments in recent years.
"It's the most money I was paid by the county in a year," said Elash, who said last year's amount included two appeals that overturned the death penalty for two other convicted killers, Ronald Bolden and Jake Wesley.
Jerry Tyskiewicz, the manager of fiscal affairs for Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, said Elash received $34,312.50 for representing Taylor, and $47,794.80 as Cornelius' attorney.
"As far as fees across the country (for court-appointed attorneys), I'm well below the average," Elash said.
Finishing second in court appointments last year was John Kent Lewis with $70,354.57 for 40 cases.
Lewis, who mainly handles appeals, said his pay might represent a couple years' work before the case was over.
Lewis said experienced attorneys are needed on appeals so they can see if the judge has made a mistake or if the trial attorney "failed to object to evidence that should have been objected to."
"I'm happy to get the work, but it involves reading thousands of pages to transcripts," Lewis said.
Lewis said the appointment of attorneys "is not a policy issue, it's a constitutional issue. That's the way it has to be. Under the Pennsylvania and U.S. Constitutions, a defendant must receive representation that is not conflicted."
In capital punishment cases, the American Bar Association suggests that different law firms be assigned to represent a defendant in the trial and penalty phases. The local court follows the practice with a court-appointed attorney handling the trial and a public defender handling the penalty phase if the defendant is convicted. The public defender's office is considered by a court as a law firm.
J. Richard Narvin, was third with $61,724.70 for 54 cases.
"For the work I do, I should be paid more. I never had a bill cut, and some judges say I don't get enough," Narvin said.
Common Pleas Judge David R. Cashman, who served on a three-member committee studying the court-appointed attorney program, said it found that "the people we had handling cases were grossly underpaid as opposed to other jurisdictions" of similar size.
Cashman said he and Judges John Zottola and now-Senior Judge Raymond Novak, sent their report to Judge Gerard Bigley, administrative judge of the Criminal Division. The judges of the division voted to increase the pay of court-appointed attorneys as of July 1, 2001.
The judge said the hourly rate was increased from $25 to $50 per hour, and trial time went from $150 per day to $500 per day.
Cashman said the attorneys were losing money at the $25 hourly rate.
Regarding the assignments of attorneys to high-profile homicide cases, Cashman said, "You can't just give it to anyone. You have to get someone who knows what is going on, and not be their first capital case.
"We've had our budget for court-appointed attorneys continue to go up, because we continue to get conflicts," said Cashman, who pointed out that in a recent rape case, a court-appointed attorney had to represent the defendant because the victim already had the public defender in another case.
The judges also changed the rule about the amount of free — or pro bono — work a court-appointed attorney must provide. Attorneys must do one free case for every four court appointments, rather than one every three cases.
Narvin said doing one free appeal out of four can be time-consuming and burdensome in appeals work, but he tries to keep up on his pro bono work and has never been notified by the court that he's falling behind.
While some public officials criticized the court-appointment system, Narvin said, the Constitution requires that the indigent receive competent representation.
"Nobody wants to do anything for criminals. Under the Constitution there is no other way to do it," Narvin said.
Cornelius, who escaped the death penalty when the jury returned a verdict of second-degree murder verdict in the killing 11-year-old Scott Drake of the North Side, faces a mandatory life term plus a possible 77 years in prison on other charges.
Cornelius will be sentenced by Common Pleas Judge John Zottola on Feb. 28.
Drake's body was found Sept. 25, 2000, in a grassy area off East Ohio Street, near the Madison Avenue ramp to Interstate 279 on the North Side. The victim's chest had been cut open and his genitals removed, police said.