Legal office that provides defense for high-profile crimes in Nebraska faces dwindling money source

Prosecutors said they plan to seek the death penalty for a man accused of killing four people in the small northeastern Nebraska community of Laurel last summer.

Jason Jones, 42, was charged with first-degree murder in four counts in the August killings, the Nebraska Attorney General’s office said, which would warrant a death sentence.

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Jones, who investigators say killed Gene Twiford, 86, Janet Twiford, 85, Dana Twiford, 55, and Michele Ebeling, 53, is being represented in the case by the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy.

Established in 1995 to provide criminal defense services for high profile cases including first degree murder, child abuse causing serious injury or death, sexual assault, robbery or kidnapping, the Commission has a dual mission.

First, it creates a suite of defense attorneys capable of ensuring defendants’ constitutional rights to counsel and a fair trial in areas of Cornhusker State where other attorneys may not be qualified to do so.

Second, the Commission reduces costs for rural districts, thereby reducing the impact on property taxpayers.

However, a combination of factors in recent years – the shift from general funds to a court-appointed fee and a declining number of case applications across the state – have financially strained the commission’s ability to meet needs across the state.

Jeff Pickens, the commission’s chief counsel, said fewer case filings resulted in a $540,000 drop in revenue between the fiscal 2008-09 budget ($1.2 million) and the fiscal 2021-2021 budget. 22 ($747,000).

At the same time, the commission has had to reach into an emergency cash fund every year since 2014-15 to cover expenses to continue providing criminal defense services across the state.

Pickens said the cash fund at the end of fiscal 2020-21 was just over $15,000, prompting the commission to seek an emergency transfer from the Legislature.

“If we hadn’t received the $520,000 remittance in July 2021, we would have had to further reduce our staff,” Pickens said in an email.

Two state senators this year proposed legislation to solve the problem. One such bill will be heard before the Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

Senator John Cavanaugh’s bill (LB555), an Omaha defense attorney, would again fund the commission through state funds and reverse a change lawmakers made nearly two decades ago.

Through a Companion Bill (LB554), the $3 fee charged for each case filing, used to support the Commission since 2005-06, would be directed to the Indigent Defense Fund, a monetary fund dedicated to the provision of Legal aid and legal counsel could be used to provide other services or pay for grants, Cavanaugh said.

“Personally, I’d like to get rid of court fees, but it’s more difficult,” Cavanaugh said in an interview. “What’s really important is the value they bring to rural Nebraska. If the commission does not exist, these counties may have to shell out an unplanned $800,000 in legal fees.”

A separate bill (LB767) by Niobrara Sen. Barry DeKay, presented to the Judiciary Committee but not set for a hearing date, would increase the needy defense fee from $3 to $8.

DeKay, whose district includes Cedar County, where Jones was charged with the quadruple murders, said he introduced the bill to ensure the commission was adequately funded, but said he will also support Cavanaugh’s bill.

“I don’t care how they get the funds,” DeKay said. “It’s important to me that we can raise the funds for these studies so that we can help these districts.”

Increasing the defense fee for those in need is a move lawmakers have previously considered. A 2021 bill (LB150) would have increased the fee by $2, but was defeated by several senators as well as the government at the time. Pete Ricketts, who said he prefers to fund the commission from general funds.

However, Gov. Jim Pillen has signaled his support for funding the commission through court-appointed fees.

Pickens said the commission has not had an attorney since May 2022, which has resulted in lower costs for the office but also limited the cases the commission can take on.

Since its inception in 1995, the commission has handled more than 1,500 cases in 72 counties, including 184 murder trials in 53 counties.

“We’ve been doing more with less for a long time,” Pickens said. “Ethically, we must not take on more cases than we can handle competently. We need to be fully staffed again with six lawyers.

“If we had a seventh attorney, we could take on more cases and give more property tax breaks,” he added.

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Reach the author at 402-473-7120 or [email protected].

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS

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