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PD urges lawmakers to take a look at territory’s flawed death penalty statute

Public Defender Ruth Risch-Fuatagavi estimates defense costs in a death penalty case going through the judicial process, including various appealable issues, is upwards of $10 million and she called on the Fono to take another look at the death penalty statute. Risch-Fuatagavi also gave lawmakers some insight on the death penalty issue when she appeared at the Fono earlier this week.

Risch-Fuatagavi appeared before the Fono joint budget hearings Wednesday to answer questions about the Public Defender’s Office fiscal year 2013 budget.

House Vice Speaker Fa’afetai Iaulualo raised, without identifying the defendant or what’s involved, a case before the High Court that is being handled by the PD’s Office. 

This is the government’s case against Siaumau Siaumau Jr., accused in the deadly shooting of a police lieutenant two years ago.

Iaulualo recalled the PD’s office had asked for about $200,000 for this case as reported by the news media, but it’s not included in the FY 2013 budget. Risch-Fuatagavi said the actual amount was $275,000 and was ordered by the court. She said the money went into the FY 2012 Budget, as the case at the time was a death penalty matter.

She said the government has since pulled the death penalty off the table.

Giving the lawmakers some insight she explained, “Because it’s the death penalty and because of the way the [local] statue is written — it is automatically appealable regardless of whether there are any identifiable appealable issues. So you have automatically won appeal,” “And I believe that because of the way our death penalty statute is written, a case would go through multiple appeals. I don’t believe any one appeal will solve many constitutional issues, that I see with our death penalty statute the way it’s written,” she said. “I would project that a death penalty case — going thru trial and going thru the first appeal — probably will cost upwards of $3 million.”

And if it goes through further appeal, I would project it would probably reach between $6 and $10 million for one death penalty case,” she pointed out. “I know that’s a staggering amount of money. But when you look at the legal issues that revolve around the death penalty case and the fact that the ultimate penalty in a death penalty case is taking some one else’s life, there are constitutional issues that are paramount and must be followed through.”

(Because it was a budget hearing, there were no follow up questions on specific constitutional issues.)

Despite the death penalty being pulled by the prosecutor, she said, “There are still some extenuating constitutional issues involving this case that will require more money than what we normally use in the Public Defender’s Office.”

She said her office has requested $150,000 - under the Special Programs budget category — for this particular case and she believes this is an accurate estimation of what the PD’s Office will need for FY 2013 and she expects this case to be “wrapped up” in FY 2013 “if all goes as anticipated.”

Risch-Fuatagavi said this case has “some serious constitutional issues,” that need some experts that “we normally do not have on the budget.”

According to the budget document, a high profile case murder case requires expert witness not available in American Samoa. Such experts include a certified mitigation expert, licensed neuropsychologist and a certified statistician and the $150,000 request is to cover these expenditures.

In closing Risch-Fuatagavi requested that the Fono look at the current death penalty statute. “In my opinion, it is flawed and needs some work. If you could spend a little bit of time, looking at it. Its something that really needs attention,” she added.

Prior to the government taking the death penalty of the table in the Siamau Jr. case, citing prohibitive costs as one of the reasons, Gov. Togiola Tulafono called for the territory’s death penalty to be taken off the books because ‘we are a nation of Christians’.