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Obligation's not just ethical but legal, court says

Published Oct. 9, 2005

Robert Fraser had to wait a while, but he'll finally be getting paid for doing his ethical duty for a convicted double murderer.

The Florida Supreme Court last Thursday ruled that defendants sentenced to death all deserve a chance to ask for U.S. Supreme Court review, even if local government has to pick up the tab for attorney's fees.

Fraser, a partner at Brandon's Sawyer and Pilka, had been appointed to appeal the murder conviction and death sentence of Alphonso Green, who savagely stabbed an elderly couple to death in 1986 while high on cocaine.

Normally, the Bartow public defender's office handles all appeals for indigent defendants from Hillsborough County. But due to a crushing caseload, that office has been kicking more and more cases back to the county.

The Florida Supreme Court in 1991 affirmed Green's conviction and sentence, so Fraser decided to ask U.S. Supreme Court for review. However, Hillsborough County convinced Circuit Judge Manuel Menendez that Green did not have a right to such review, and so the county shouldn't have to pay for it.

Fraser filed his petition anyway, out of his own pocket. It was denied in 1992.

"How could I not file it?" Fraser said. "I couldn't leave him in the lurch like that."

That was exactly what Hillsborough County had argued _ that the appeal was Fraser's ethical obligation, though not the county's financial obligation.

Meanwhile, Fraser appealed Menendez's decision on funding to the 2nd District Court of Appeal, which quietly passed the issue along to the state's high court, which accepted jurisdiction on the basis that the same issue is likely to recur in Florida's overloaded criminal justice system.

The court noted that because the 10th Circuit Public Defender's office seeks U.S. Supreme Court review in every death sentence case, (including Green's, had the office not been too swamped) denying such appeal by an appointed attorney would violate equal access.

The court ordered that Menendez now determine how much Hillsborough County owes Fraser, who estimated his fees and costs were probably less than $2,000.

"Frankly I would have preferred to have won the appeal from the conviction," Fraser said. "By comparison, I can't really say this is tremendously significant." Green remains on death row.

Stetson University College of Law has established a scholarship fund in honor of U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Alexander Paskay of Tampa.

The scholarship was announced Friday night at the Tampa Bay Bankruptcy Bar Association's annual dinner banquet, held at the University Club.

Brian Thomas, a spokesman for Stetson, said the endowed scholarship already has commitments for more than $36,000. The TBBBA and the Business Law section of the Florida Bar, along with individual lawyers and law firms have made contributions to the fund, Thomas said.

Paskay has served as a judge more than 30 years. He has been an adjunct faculty member at Stetson since 1973, and also serves on the school's board of overseers.

Thomas said that the details of who will be eligible for scholarships from the Paskay fund are still being worked out, but that it will likely be based on merit, financial need, and an interest in bankruptcy law.

Paskay was criticized earlier this year for making derogatory comments about a Hispanic lawyer during a court hearing. He has apologized for those comments.