Death-Penalty Lawyers Are Making a Killing Off Maricopa Taxpayers

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How was it that the reputedly hyper-vigilant Logan and his in-house auditor didn't ever suspect wrongdoing over Nate Carr's multitude of steep invoices?

Logan did catch an improper billing by Carr once, in February 2009, when he declined to pay Carr for 14 hours of "work" after the attorney charged the county $1,750 for "scanning documents" in another murder case.

"Scanning is clerical work not to be paid," Logan scribbled on a Carr invoice.

Logan told New Times that he never noticed other charges for "scanning" on Carr's billings before then and didn't look at the invoices retroactively after that.

He should have.

Carr's paperwork shows he billed Maricopa County more than $5,000 for "scanning" in the Naranjo case alone, and almost $20,000 overall in more than 50 invoices over a three-year period before Logan happened to notice.

"Scanning day," he wrote on a June 2008 bill for 3.5 hours, or $437. "Putting it on flash drive takes quite a bit of time."

Carr claimed on July 4 that year to have spent three hours at the printer: "Love scanning on holidays — the best!"

Later in 2008, Carr expressed frustration on his invoice after an apparent 2.5-hour attempt to scan in yet more documents: "Tried to scan into flash drive — Houston, we have a problem!"

Bills submitted to public agencies are public record, but Carr oddly chose a stream-of-consciousness approach in many invoices, even when referring to his own death-penalty-eligible clients.

"He just snuck up and blasted her in the head," he wrote of his client Larry Gary, now serving a life sentence for murdering his Phoenix girlfriend in November 2007. "I don't think she ever saw it coming. So he blows his girlfriend of five years' head off. Not good."

In a February 2009 invoice for four hours, Carr wrote: "Heavy work. We are getting down to the nitty-gritty. I think we are good, but it's dirty Basta and not-so-smart Steinle."

This would be Naranjo prosecutor Eric Basta and Judge Roland Steinle.

The following month, Carr said this about Dr. Brad Bayless, a prosecution expert witness in Naranjo: "Lots of impeachment material — he's the state's whore."

He charged the county three hours, or $375, to come up with that observation.

After interviewing a pair of Phoenix homicide cops in August 2010, Carr wrote, "Those two make me dislike cops even more. They are so full of garbage. I will destroy them on the stand."

Finally, this one from June 2009, an invoice for what Carr claimed was three hours of video-watching: "Looking at new video of our client from the past. He looks like a killer, not a retard."

The latter reference is to the fact that Naranjo is mentally handicapped.

Jim Logan said he never advised Carr to tone down his commentary on official county paperwork.

"It was very weird, but I never said a word to him about it," Logan said. "Why should I have?"

Maricopa County's lucrative criminal-defense niche began to explode in 2005, within months after Andrew Thomas became county attorney.

Death-penalty filings increased exponentially during Thomas' controversial reign, which ended when he resigned in 2010 to unsuccessfully run for Arizona attorney general.

By 2008, Maricopa County had become the nation's unofficial capital-punishment capital, with about 150 death-penalty cases pending — up by two-thirds from three years earlier. It didn't help that the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Ring v. Arizona mandated retrials for several convicted murderers (now they would be sentenced by juries, not judges).

Death-penalty cases are among the most expensive, time-consuming, and rigorous in the justice system. One reason is that most murder defendants are unable to afford lawyers, and the courts must appoint counsel to represent them — at great cost to taxpayers.

In Maricopa County, defense attorneys appointed to murder cases usually come from one of three Public Defender agencies. The country also contracts with private lawyers to take on cases with several defendants, who may be pointing fingers at each other and legally cannot have attorneys from the same agency representing them.

Jim Keppel, the county's presiding criminal judge during the height of the courthouse crisis regarding death-penalty cases, says there just weren't enough judges, prosecutors, and qualified defense attorneys to handle the load during the unprecedented blitz of capital filings under Thomas, who since has been disbarred. (Pending death-eligible cases have shrunk from the peak of about 150 to about 65 since Thomas' departure.)

Maricopa County tried at the time to lure more private attorneys into the death-penalty-defense fold by increasing the hourly rate for first-chair lawyers to $125 an hour and second-chair attorneys to $95 an hour. Mitigation specialists — who are similar to private investigators, but whose sole task it is to find reasons for jurors to possibly spare guilty clients — got bumped up to $55 an hour.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin