Expert Testimony in Criminal Trials to Cost Allegheny County $320K

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Allegheny County expects to pay more than $320,000 this year for outside experts and firms to testify in criminal court cases.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys say the cost is a necessary burden, but it's becoming more expensive. The costs went up the past three years, from about $250,000 in 2007.

This year the county has paid $48,056 to Dr. Bruce Wright, a psychiatrist often used by District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala's office. His pay for work on 28 cases is the most of any expert. He received $114,168 for work on 55 cases since 2007, according to the county controller's office.

The starting salary for an Allegheny County assistant district attorney and public defender is $39,080.

"I think the fees are fair. I spend a lot of time doing interviews (with defendants) and going through records," Wright said. "I do a lot of work. The amount of time involved in each case is a lot. I'm in court, reviewing paperwork. It's time intensive."

Defense attorneys often call psychiatrists and psychologists to make the case that their clients should not be held responsible for their actions. If the defendant is indigent, county taxpayers are on the hook for a bill that can get expensive -- especially in death penalty cases.

Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning approved $4,300 for psychiatric and psychological tests for Richard Poplawski, who is accused of killing three Pittsburgh police officers in April. Defense attorney Richard Narvin asked for $5,800. Manning said he could approve more money as the case moves forward.

Prosecutors likely will hire someone such as Wright to contradict a mental health defense.

"When the defense gives notice of a mental-health defense, normally we have to call in rebuttal witnesses. I think juries expect that. If the defense calls someone, we ordinarily do also," said First Assistant District Attorney Chris Connors. "Our outside experts are mostly psychiatrists."

The District Attorney's Office spent $34,000 on outside experts in 2007; $43,000 in 2008; and $82,000 so far this year. Court- appointed defense attorneys hired $75,000 worth of outside experts in 2007 compared with $92,000 so far this year. County public defender Michael Machen did not have exact figures but said his office budgets about $145,000 annually for outside experts.

"Homicides and death penalty cases especially are the most expensive," criminal court administrator Helen Lynch said. …