An experimental program to curb the rising cost of court-appointed lawyers for indigent defendants is being assailed by some prominent criminal defense attorneys who contend that death penalty cases are being short-changed.
Under a program the Los Angeles County Bar Assn. plans to start next month, attorneys who wish to be assigned complex and protracted cases, including those involving capital crimes, must agree to fees ranging from $55 an hour for preparation time to $60 an hour for actual time in court.
"The fees are very, very low," said Paul Geragos, the attorney for Harry B. Sassounian, who was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole for the 1982 murder of a Turkish consul general. "Is it fair to have nickels and dimes as far as the defense is concerned when the prosecution has unlimited funds?"
"I personally think the fee schedule is totally inadequate. You live (death penalty) cases day and night," said Richard Plotin, one of several attorneys interviewed who does not plan to join the program.
The Bar Assn. is reviewing applications from more than 40 attorneys who want to be considered for the toughest and longest cases when the one-year pilot program--which is supposed to reduce the cost of court-appointed private felony defense by $500,000--gets under way.
At least 30 lawyers will be needed for the panel, criminal courts coordinator John Iverson and Bar spokeswoman Cindy A. Raisch estimate.
Some defense attorneys say they worry that the most experienced lawyers will follow the example of Plotin, Leslie H. Abramson, Albert DeBlanc Jr. and others and will not apply for the death penalty panel.
If that happens, they contend, the quality of representation will suffer, although they concede that requirements for the panel are stringent.
A reduction in quality could in turn lead to costly reversals, according to these critics.
"If you can get qualified people . . . you can eliminate reversals," said Joe Ingber, whose clients have included Vernon Butts, one of the so-called Freeway Killers. "You might as well do it right the first time and you will save literally hundreds of thousands of dollars."
Abramson, who is representing one of the defendants accused of killing a policeman in Chinatown in 1984, said: "If you allow incompetent lawyers to try death penalty cases, the worst that can happen is that innocent people will be gassed. The second worst is that the cases will have to be retried."
The executive officer of the Los Angeles Superior Court, Frank S. Zolin, said he approved the fees recommended by the Bar Assn. after comparing them with the rates paid to deputy district attorneys and public defenders, and the average cost for each case.
Zolin said the fee schedule allows judges to use discretion in making awards for court time spent on protracted cases--although not for preparation time--and said he expects them to augment the fees for long, highly publicized trials.
But he stressed that the program will not work if such awards become the rule.
"I believe we had a thorough discussion with the representatives of the Bar on that rate (for capital and protracted cases) and agreement was reached," Zolin said.
"If that rate is insufficient and it's appropriate to increase it, the obvious result is that the Bar panel program will not achieve the estimated savings."
Ingber and others are also critical of what he describes as the "god-awful disparity" between what the county pays private lawyers in civil cases involving money and property and what it is willing to pay for representation of people who face the gas chamber.
For example, the county hired private lawyers at $150 an hour to defend itself against an estimated $500-million worth of claims from Malibu homeowners whose homes were damaged in 1983 by massive rock slides, according to chief Asst. County Counsel Gerald F. Crump.
When former Coroner Thomas T. Noguchi contested his demotion and sought $1 million in damages from the county, private attorneys were hired at $110 an hour, Crump said.
Contending that "the going rate" for business litigation is as high as $250 an hour, Abramson complained that "life litigation comes on the cheap."
"What can I say? They're right," Zolin said. "If you look at what the county pays . . . attorneys that they hire to represent them on the civil side, you're going to see the rates are significantly higher than what we've paid criminal defense attorneys.
"I don't know if there's any justification. It's a matter of priorities."
Ironically, Ingber was one of the lawyers who developed the Bar Assn.'s fee schedule, and he is urging other lawyers to apply for the program despite their misgivings. He noted that the private Bar has no choice but to comply with the Board of Supervisors' insistence on trimming court costs, or it risks losing court appointments altogether.