Defense Services chief says office needs more funds to defend Vaughn inmates

DOVER — Budget-writing lawmakers grilled the state’s top prosecutors and public-defense lawyers Wednesday, questioning officials about body cameras, post-conviction relief and this month’s inmate uprising at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center.

Chief Defender Brendan O’Neill, who in past budget hearings has argued his office needs more resources to remain on level footing with the Department of Justice, echoed that point before the Joint Finance Committee.

Citing the 19-hour Vaughn standoff that left one correctional officer dead, Mr. O’Neill said the Office of Defense Services might have to represent a large number of the 120 inmates being investigated as suspects.

“If they’re going to be interrogated by investigators, our law says that each and every one of them has the right to have a lawyer before being questioned,” he said.

So far, six inmates have, through family members, received counsel from the office, according to Mr. O’Neill.

Afterward, Mr. O’Neill told reporters he doesn’t know when charges will be announced or how many inmates might be involved.

Appearing before JFC later, Attorney General Matt Denn was asked to provide an update on the Vaughn probe. But he declined to offer details due to the ongoing nature of the state police investigation.

Several JFC members had questions about police body cameras. Delaware State Police conducted a pilot program last year to study cameras. While some police agencies in the state use body cameras, funding was not provided in the current budget to allow state police to utilize them on a large scale.

Repeating concerns he raised last year, JFC co-chairman Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington, asked why lawyers would have to review camera footage. Both the Office of Defense Services and Department of Justice have said if cameras become more widespread they will need to hire more people solely to examine recordings.

“It really bothers me that we would have to pay an attorney to sit and watch hours and hours of film,” Sen. McDowell said.

Sen. Bruce Ennis, D-Smyrna, agreed, suggesting the Department of Justice and Office of Defense Services use trained investigators to save money.

Both Mr. O’Neill and Mr. Denn said lawyers on a case not only have an ethical obligation to be the ones looking at camera footage but also have special training that gives them an idea of what is and what is not evidence.

“When the instruments start going haywire and you’re up at 30,000 feet you want the person who’s experienced,” Mr. O’Neill said.

Members and Mr. O’Neill also spent time on Rule 61, a Superior Court procedure laying down guidelines about how a defendant found guilty can appeal.
The rule was altered in 2014. Lawmakers were concerned the number of appeals could skyrocket.

“The vast majority of these cases are, in fact, dismissed without a hearing before the Superior Court,” Mr. O’Neill told JFC members.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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