Should public pay defense for Tampa mother accused of killing teens?

TAMPA — She and her husband paid $448,000 for their home. They own two others. She drove a Mercedes-Benz. She's married to a longtime military officer whose income is estimated in six figures.

But the first time Julie Powers Schenecker appeared in court this week, the suburban mother accused of killing her two children had an attorney with the Hillsborough Public Defender's Office at her side.

The state-funded office exists to provide counsel to the poor, whose income is no higher than twice the poverty level. For a two-person household, the poverty level is $14,710. For one person, it's $10,890.

Will taxpayers foot the bill for Schenecker's defense?

The answer isn't as clear-cut as some might expect.

The factor playing the biggest role in whether the Public Defender's Office stays on the case is how much money Schenecker has at her disposal — and that means cash she could get to a private lawyer from the position she is in, at the Falkenburg Road Jail with no hope of bail.

"She's in jail charged with a serious crime, and she can't do business transactions in a way that would allow her to sell real estate and gain those funds," said Leon County Public Defender Nancy Daniels.

"A person charged with a serious crime needs a lawyer right now. If they have to go through a lot of financial transactions to gain access to the money, they are technically indigent at this moment."

Schenecker's court file does not yet include the financial paperwork she must complete to be considered indigent. The mere veneer of wealth may not accurately reflect her liquid assets. She could be in debt, upside down on her mortgage, or living above her means.

And it's unclear, at this point, whether her husband will help defend a woman accused of killing their children.

"At this point, given the dynamics of this case, no one can peer into the dynamics of his soul and figure out where his allegiances lie," Hillsborough Circuit Judge Gregory Holder said of Army Col. Parker Schenecker.

If the Scheneckers share bank accounts, that would factor into the determination of her indigence. But ultimately, the decision of representation would be up to a judge.

Out of caution, Holder has recused himself from being assigned to the case because of military ties — he's a former Air Force Reserve colonel. But he spoke with the Times about the circumstances a judge would consider.

"She's treated as an individual," Holder said. "They're not treated as a couple. … No judge would ever force anyone to give up their life savings to afford counsel."

The deciding judge's main concern, say legal experts, will be that Schenecker is properly defended.

She isn't accused of petty theft. She's accused of first-degree murder, facing life in prison or, if the state chooses to pursue it, the death penalty. A private defense of such magnitude, which could include mental health experts and diagnostic tests, could cost up to $250,000, even before any appeals.

Many who saw the man standing next to Schenecker this week said she would be well represented by Assistant Public Defender Bob Fraser, one of the most experienced homicide lawyers around, with 34 first-degree murder cases under his belt, almost half of which involved the death penalty.

"Bob Fraser is as good as they come," said Rick Terrana, one of a handful of local private attorneys qualified by the state Supreme Court to handle death penalty cases. Public defenders are required to have this qualification, which involves continuing education about death penalty issues. Private attorneys can get it, but don't need it in order to defend someone facing death.

Terrana has a file drawer packed with postconviction cases in which defendants claim inadequate representation. Less-experienced attorneys could miss something and trigger an appeal.

Pinellas-Pasco County Public Defender Bob Dillinger says it could come down to this:

The public pays now or later.

"The taxpayers might be a little bit upset," he said, "but they'd be even more upset if it kept getting reversed."

Times staff writer Sue Carlton and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

Should public pay defense for Tampa mother accused of killing teens? 02/04/11 [Last modified: Saturday, February 5, 2011 9:51pm]

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