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Case against Utah attorney puts focus on public defenders

Courts » John Hummel is accused of taking cash, guns and electronics from indigent clients.

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That’s the problem, Hart said.

"In the absence of state oversight or enforcement standards," he said, "you’re going to get 29 different ways of doing things."

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Overworked, underpaid » Each of the 29 counties must adhere to one rule: Every person accused of committing a crime has the right to an attorney. But because not every person accused of committing a crime can afford an attorney, it falls to the counties to provide defenders.

Some, like Salt Lake and Utah Counties, have public defender offices that function like a conventional law firm with full- or part-time salaried employees charged with providing public defense services.

But most counties hire private attorneys. That means a private attorney is awarded a contract, which typically offers a flat fee in exchange for an unlimited number of public defense cases per year.

This often leads to public defenders who are overworked and underpaid, Hart said.

"Taking money from indigent clients is never understandable. You just don’t do it," Hart said. "But public defenders are woefully under-compensated. The bigger problem might just be that these attorneys aren’t being paid enough by the county to put what they need to into a case."

According to a 2010 report issued by the American Civil Liberties Union, public defenders in Utah receive an average of $400 per felony case and less than 10 hours to spend on each defendant. Private defense attorneys tend to receive more than $400 an hour and have far fewer clients than public defenders.

These county contracts don’t take into account, Hart said, the slew of costs and responsibilities sometimes necessary for an adequate defense. That includes the amount of time it takes to resolve a case, the need to investigate crimes beyond what has already been provided by the state, and the amount of travel to courthouses or jails.

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Naive to the system » If the allegations are true, Hummel received seven firearms, two 32-inch flat-screen televisions, two computers, an iPod, digital camera, video camera, Play Station 3, DVD player and more than $11,000 cash from seven indigent clients.

This year, Garfield County is paying its public defender $26,400.

All of Hummel’s victims, court documents state, claimed to be "naive to the system and how it works." If they had known their rights, the documents state, they "never would have agreed to [Hummel’s] demands."

It’s not the first time Hummel’s ethics have been called into question.

Hummel was elected the Kane County attorney in 2007 but served barely a month. He resigned when questions surfaced about whether Hummel actually lived in Kane County.

Hummel’s trial is scheduled to last three days. Hummel could not be reached for comment. His attorney, Gary Pendleton, declined to comment Friday.


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