Attorneys prepare for roles in defending Barbours
SUNBURY - Unlike television where defense attorneys are often glamorized, not to mention successful in having their clients acquitted, those representing accused murderers in real life have difficult jobs, and sometimes feel the wrath of victims' families and the public.
The attorneys representing Miranda and Elytte Barbour, who are charged by Sunbury police with stabbing and strangling to death 42-year-old Troy LaFerrara, of Port Trevorton, on Nov. 11, have defended accused killers in the past, and abide by the old legal adage that everyone is presumed innocent and entitled to a good defense.
James Best, of Sunbury, and Edward Greco, of Kulpmont, both certified in death penalty cases, are the lawyers for Elytte Barbour, 22, and his 19-year-old wife, Miranda Barbour, respectively. Best is representing his client as independent conflicts counsel for the county, while Greco is defending Miranda Barbour as chief public defender for the county.
"Some people have asked me how I can defend someone like Mr. Barbour, and I've received negative feedback and hostile comments in the past for representing defendants in homicide cases," Best said in discussing the issue Thursday. "But my feeling has always been the same - everyone is presumed innocent and entitled to a good defense."
Same pay as always
Since the attorneys are being paid by the county, the commonwealth will save a lot of money in the case compared to having to appoint private attorneys for the two defendants.
Best and Greco receive salaries of approximately $46,000 and $35,000 in their respective positions. They will not be paid any overtime or receive additional compensation for what is expected to be numerous hours involved with the homicide case.
Best, who would like to have the cases merged into one trial, estimates that costs paid by the commonwealth will still amount to tens of thousands of dollars due to expert witnesses, private investigators and psychiatric exams. He said the cost will be even more if Northumberland County District Attorney Tony Rosini seeks the death penalty.
But he said the homicide case will cost considerably less than the last homicide jury trial, in which 42-year-old Michael Anson Harrell, of Sunbury, was convicted Nov. 19, 2010, of murdering 24-year-old Crystal Scholl-Gordon and 25-year-old David Moore in Sunbury on Jan. 18, 2008. Harrell was sentenced Feb. 15, 2011, to two consecutive life terms in prison after Rosini decided not to pursue the death penalty following the conviction and consultation with the victims' families.
Best said the Harrell trial cost hundreds of thousands of dollars since the court had to appoint private attorneys William Miele and Edward J. Rymsza, of Williamsport, to defend Harrell because the county public defender's office had a conflict with the case and didn't have an independent conflicts counsel certified in death penalty cases.
An average death sentence, including the initial trial and appeal process, costs approximately $3 million, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. A life sentence may cost approximately $1 million.
Best and Greco, who both reserved comment when asked if they believed their clients were guilty, assume Rosini will pursue the death penalty. He has to decide by Tuesday, which is the day Miranda Barbour is scheduled to appear for formal arraignment at 9 a.m. in the Court of Common Pleas.
Elytte Barbour has waived his right to arraignment in county court and will attend a hearing at 10:30 a.m. Feb. 5 to decide if the county is responsible for paying a psychiatrist to determine if he's competent to stand trial.
Death penalty like two trials
Best and Greco agreed that having the same attorney represent both Barbours would pose a conflict of interest.
"Seeking the death penalty will up the game for the defense attorneys because that essentially means we have to be more thorough by preparing for two trials," Best said.
Best, who has been an attorney for 21 years, has represented defendants in four homicide cases in his career - two each in Northumberland and Snyder counties.
His client, Robert Reich, of Penns Creek, and two co-defendants, Ryan Sprenkel and Christopher Aucker, were acquitted at the conclusion of a two-week murder trial in May in Snyder County. The three men were accused of beating to death 21-year-old Donald Seebold at a party in 1997.
Best said if Rosini seeks the death penalty, he will definitely advise his client to take the case to trial. If the death penalty isn't sought, he will weigh his options.
Best said it's his duty to defend clients to the best of his ability while noting "people who are not guilty do get charged with crimes."
Best is against the death penalty and pointed out that more cases involving DNA have proven defendants convicted of murder and sentenced to death to be innocent.
In Pennsylvania, Best said only the governor can pardon someone sentenced to life in prison.
Best said he's never regretted defending accused murderers and has always done his best to have them acquitted or at least avoid the death penalty.
He believes all his prior cases have helped his career, while acknowledging that the stakes are much higher in homicides.
Greco has been an attorney since 1988 and a county public defender since 1990.
Like Best, Greco had to serve as defense counsel at 12 serious felony trials and complete 18 credits at legal education seminars within three years to become certified in death penalty cases.
He is being assisted by county public defender Paige Rosini, who also is a certified death penalty counselor.
Greco echoed Best's thoughts about having an obligation to provide clients with the best possible defense.
The lawyer said he has never received any threats from the public about representing accused murderers. "Most people know that I'm just doing my job," he said.
He added, "It's not my job to determine guilt or innocence. It doesn't matter what I believe. It's what the jury or judge think."
Greco, who has represented four other accused murderers - Troy Walter of Sunbury, Robert Aucker of Sunbury, Fredil Omar Rodriguez Fuentes of Milton and James Blake of Milton - said his prior homicide cases will help prepare for Miranda Barbour's case.
Walter was convicted of first-degree murder in a shaken-baby case, but Greco was successful in having that verdict overturned on appeal. Walter eventually pleaded guilty to third-degree murder and is free after serving his sentence.
Fuentes pleaded guilty to an open count of criminal homicide, which was later turned into first-degree murder. He is serving life in prison.
Fuentes was charged in the June 10, 2005, stabbing death of his 20-year-old neighbor, Carly Snyder.
Aucker also was convicted of first-degree murder and was initially sentenced to death, but on appeal, Aucker was granted a lifetime sentence.
The 80-year-old Blake, who was charged with shooting to death his 82-year-old wife, Faye, on Oct. 20, 2006, in what he claimed was a mercy killing, pleaded guilty to third-degree murder and was sentenced to 7 1/2 to 16 years in prison with credit for 438 days for time served in Northumberland County Prison.
No stone unturned
Greco said he has met with Miranda Barbour about 15 times since her arrest in December. Best has conferred with his client several times.
Both attorneys said they can't stop their clients from talking to the media prior to trial, but have strongly advised against it.
Miranda Barbour is on non-disciplinary restricted status at Northumberland County Prison in Sunbury, where she is not allowed any visitors because she can't leave her cell block, according to Warden Roy Johnson.
Elytte Barbour is in Columbia County Prison in Bloomsburg, where he is housed in a restricted housing unit but can receive visitors.
"I don't want to see anyone who is innocent go to jail," Greco said. "It's my job to give my absolute best effort so my clients aren't granted new trials because of ineffective counsel.
"I try to leave no stones unturned and cover all my bases when I'm representing someone at a murder trial because you are dealing with someone's life," he continued. "Homicide trials are definitely the most grueling."