Public defender seeking to add another lawyer for Kent cases

Chief Defender Brendan O’Neill speaks during the Delaware Marijuana Control Act introduction. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Chief Public Defender Brendan O’Neill continues to seek another public defender for the Kent County Court of Common Pleas.

Appearing before state budget officials Wednesday to detail his request, Mr. O’Neill also noted the Office of Defense Services will be tasked with representing some of the inmates recently charged with murder for the February uprising at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center that killed one correctional officer.

Mr. O’Neill’s request for another Kent attorney is one he’s made for several years: In a February 2016 budget hearing, he called the caseload “ridiculous.”

The average public defender for the Court of Common Pleas in Kent handles 1,140 cases per year, nearly three times the America Bar Association recommendation of 400.

His total General Fund ask is $23.5 million. The agency is receiving $23.2 million this year, down from $24.8 the prior year.

“Simply put, the state may not balance its budget by failing to meet its federal and state constitutional obligation to provide legal representation to poor people charged with crimes,” he wrote in a memo to Office of Management and Budget Director Mike Jackson.

Other portions of his request including adding an attorney for the Office of Conflicts Counsel and providing funding for four attorneys currently covered by a federal grant that is set to expire in about a year.

The Vaughn issue is also hanging over his head.

While Delaware currently does not have a death penalty after the state Supreme Court struck it down last year, legislation that would add a capital punishment statute is awaiting a Senate committee hearing. It passed the House of Representatives in May and could be debated by the Senate when lawmakers return in January.

Should legislators pass the bill, prosecutors would likely attempt to seek the death penalty for the inmates accused of murder, Mr. O’Neill said.

“If that happens, and I sure hope it doesn’t, we’re in a whole different world because by law we have to get each one of them a second lawyer,” he said.

Another budget pressure comes from 55 gang-related arrests announced last week by the Dover Police Department. Mr. O’Neill said indictments for that case will be unsealed very soon, potentially leading to dozens of defendants seeking legal representation through the Office of Defense Services.

Elsewhere, the Department of Agriculture, which held its presentation before the Office of Defense Services, asked farmland preservation be funded to the tune of $10 million.

The Delaware Code says the farmland preservation program should receive $10 million annually, but it has been expended that amount only twice in the past eight years — something that has drawn the ire of legislators from more rural areas downstate. The program was allocated $3 million this year.

Gov. John Carney’s recommended budget will be released in January, and lawmakers will hold their own budget hearings in February.

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