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Penn Broke, County to Pay $417,894 in Defense Costs

December 01, 1987|JENIFER WARREN | Times Staff Writer

In a sworn financial statement provided to San Diego County officials, Sagon Penn has said he is unemployed and virtually penniless, making him unable to pay back any of the $417,894 the county spent on his defense through two lengthy and widely publicized trials.

Penn, who was acquitted of murder and other major charges in the 1985 shooting death of a San Diego police officer and the wounding of another officer and a civilian, listed his total assets as about $9 and said he has not tried to find work because he fears for his life.

The Southeast San Diego man also told officials he is the father of an infant girl and is now living in the area with an unnamed friend who provides him with shelter and food.

Glimpse Into Life

Such information, contained in court documents filed late last month, provide the first glimpse into Penn's life since his 30-month legal saga came to a close in July. The 25-year-old black man, who did not testify in either of his trials and made no public statement after prosecutors dismissed the remaining charges against him, has largely remained a mystery to outsiders.

Given Penn's dire financial status, officials say it is all but certain that the county will not recoup any of the money spent on his defense, which was handled by attorney Milton J. Silverman under an agreement with the Office of Defender Services. Silverman, a highly regarded lawyer who has said he normally bills upwards of $120 an hour for his services, was paid the standard public defender hourly rate of $60 to represent Penn.

County officials said that, from Oct. 30, 1985, to July 17, 1987, the total bill for Penn's defense was $417,894.16. Silverman's fees totaled $148,527.50; expert witness fees came to $121,433.61; investigation costs were $105,733.03; law clerk fees totaled $28,490, and unspecified "other" costs were $13,710.02.

'Simply No Assets'

Morris Pion, director of the county's Department of Revenue and Recovery, said that, after meeting with Penn and Silverman on Nov. 19 and reviewing Penn's financial statement, "it is clear there are simply no assets" for the county to recover.

Pion said he questioned Penn and Silverman about two possible sources of money--a legal defense fund established by the community and a proposed television miniseries on the controversial case--but found neither to be fruitful.

Although the legal defense committee raised about $10,000 on behalf of Penn, all of that amount was paid to Robert Slatten, an attorney who represented Penn briefly before the first trial started. Silverman received no payments from the defense fund.

As for the television special, a contract offer has been made by Fries Entertainment of Los Angeles--which already has interviewed Penn and the prosecutor in the case--but Silverman said he has advised Penn not to sign it.

Pion said one final source of money he explored was a personal gift of $5,000 that Silverman said he made to Penn shortly after his second trial to help him get on with his life. But Penn said he had spent all but $9 of the amount, according to Pion.

Financial Reevaluation?

In a letter to Superior Court Judge J. Morgan Lester, who presided at Penn's second trial and ultimately will hold a hearing to determine the feasibility of recovering any money, Pion reported his assessment of Penn's assets and recommended that his financial situation be re-evaluated within the next two months.

Under the state penal code, the county has until Jan. 28--six months after the conclusion of Penn's second trial--to obtain repayment from Penn, Pion said. After that time, an indigent defendant is free of any legal obligation to reimburse the county.

"Quite often a defendant does not have employment at the conclusion of a trial, so they give us the six-month period in which to collect from them," Pion said. "I wish it was longer. Because after that, he could make a million and we couldn't touch it."

Pion said the county recovers about $1 million annually from indigent defendants, compared to the roughly $17 million that it spends to defend those unable to hire their own attorney. He said another $1 million a year is saved through a program that carefully screens defendants who request a county-funded defense attorney.

"Many times, these people will have the wherewithal to pay but just choose not to," Pion said.

Penn's saga began on March 31, 1985, when his truck was stopped in Encanto by Police Agent Donovan Jacobs for an alleged traffic violation. According to the defense, the routine stop exploded in deadly gunfire when a racist and enraged Jacobs beat Penn with his night stick and fists and used racial slurs, prompting Penn to shoot in self-defense. Police Agent Thomas Riggs died in the confrontation while Jacobs and Sarah Pina-Ruiz, a civilian riding in Riggs' patrol car, were wounded.

The episode created bitter feelings between the San Diego Police Department and the black community and in part prompted the formation of a panel to review the department's handling of civilian complaints about police misconduct.

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