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‘Asian Boyz’ case highlights costs of lengthy trials

Sarith Prak, front, and his brother David Prak, left, with Preston Khaoone and Quentin Russell, far right, are led out of Sonoma County Superior Court Friday, July 27, 2012 after receiving life terms in the gang kidnap and killing of Vutha Au in 2008. (Kent Porter / PD)


Court-appointed lawyers and investigators defending six Santa Rosa gang members tied to a 2008 Jenner beach murder submitted bills to Sonoma County totaling more than $520,000.

The money, divided among 11 attorneys and three investigators for the Asian Boyz defendants, was in addition to full-time salaries paid to some of the lawyers under contract with the county to represent poor people.

The costs were driven up, in part, by the more than two years it took then-District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua to decide whether he would seek the death penalty.

During that time, four of the defendants each were appointed a second, publicly funded attorney and one of the defendants racked up a six-figure investigative bill to prepare for an anticipated punishment phase of the trial.

Ultimately, Passalacqua took death off the table in October 2010, deciding instead to seek life in prison without parole. The four were convicted in June and have begun serving their sentences.

“Death penalty prosecutions are very expensive and taxpayers bear this cost,” said Judge Rene Chouteau, who presides over Sonoma County Superior Court and approved some of the defense fees. “This is one example.”

The financial lesson is one death penalty opponents hope voters will take to the polls Nov. 6 when they consider Proposition 34, an initiative to end capital punishment and replace it with life in prison.

Prop. 34 supporters argue the death penalty is wrong and costs Californians millions of dollars each year, both in legal fees and the expense of housing the 725 people on San Quentin’s Death Row.

“This is a perfect time to get rid of the death penalty,” said interim Public Defender Kathleen Pozzi. “It makes fiscal sense to do it. We can put the money where it’s needed.”

Sonoma County’s Asian Boyz case began with the March 2008 abduction and slaying of Vutha Au, 24, of Santa Rosa, in a Sonoma Coast beach parking lot a few miles south of Jenner.

Prosecutors said he was killed in retribution for his brother’s testimony against gang members. The gang had kidnapped and tortured his brother when he refused to sell drugs for them.

Initially, police arrested six suspects on charges of murder with special circumstances. All were eligible for the death penalty. Two pleaded to lesser charges in 2011 and were sent to prison.

Four went to trial. Preston Khaoone, 26, Quentin Russell, 28, and brothers Sarith Prak, 25, and David Prak, 23, all of Santa Rosa, were convicted of first-degree murder, kidnapping and gang participation.

All were sentenced in July to life without parole in prison.

But long before their trial, a team of lawyers and investigators appointed by the court were working on their defenses.

Second attorneys expecting a death penalty phase logged hours crafting legal arguments. Death penalty investigators researched family backgrounds to look for mitigating factors. For example, the Praks’ parents were Cambodian refugees who escaped death at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.

If the brothers had been convicted and faced execution, lawyers were preparing to argue their bleak childhoods played a role in their decision to join a gang, a lawyer familiar with the case said.

It was an expensive and time-consuming endeavor that generated huge fees.

“I don’t think it was a gouging,” said Kristine Burk, who was second lawyer to David Prak. “Our focus was entirely on removing the death penalty from the case. If our interest was financial, that would be counter-intuitive.”

The bills were released this week by the Sonoma County counsel’s office in response to a public records request submitted last month by The Press Democrat.

Topping the list for the legal team was a $127,000 bill from Stinson Beach private investigator Sheila O’Donnell. She worked with attorneys for the alleged mastermind, Preston Khaoone, who was said to have ordered Au’s killing.

O’Donnell didn’t return a call Friday seeking comment.

Khaoone’s second lawyer, Gordon “Bart” Scott, submitted bills for $91,600, while Khaoone’s trial attorney, Kathy Hernandez, sent invoices for $12,300 in addition to the salary she was paid by the county.

Court-appointed attorneys are paid an undisclosed portion of a $2.2 million contract the county has with a group of about 15 lawyers.

Scott objected to the disclosure of his fees and would not discuss details of his work Friday.

“My obligation is to my client,” Scott said. “What I did on his behalf is between him and me and the court.”

Bills from other second attorneys included $47,500 from George Boisseau, who represented co-defendant Tyrone Tay, and $22,300 from Kristine Burk.

In addition, Erik Bruce, an attorney for co-defendant Boonlak Chanpheng, billed the county $47,600, and Marylou Hillberg, second lawyer for Sarith Prak, got $14,700.

“That’s way on the low side,” said Bruce, who invested more than six months defending Chanpheng. “A private lawyer would have charged a lot more than I was into it.”

Attorney Marty Woods, who represented Russell — the shooter — was paid his county salary the first two years and billed the county a flat $95,400 for the second two years.

Two other investigators, James Baker and Chris Reynolds, submitted bills for a combined $15,000.

Just how the costs compare to other similar multi-defendant cases in Sonoma County is unknown. And the amounts don’t include prosecution costs, which involved thousands of hours of staff time by attorneys, investigators and victim advocates, District Attorney Jill Ravitch said.

“We don’t keep an hourly accounting of what we do,” Ravitch said. “If we did, we’d all be taken aback.”

But the defense fees would have been higher if prosecutors had continued to pursue the death penalty. After a finding of guilt, a second trial would have been held to decide punishment.

“The reality is, the costs are driven by the decisions the district attorney makes or fails to make,” Bruce said. “There’s a lot of posturing and politicking that’s unnecessary and ends up costing a lot of money.”

9 Responses to “‘Asian Boyz’ case highlights costs of lengthy trials”

  1. MendoTech says:

    Dick Tracy wrote:
    “MendoTech: You’re first two paragraphs are 1) racist and 2) imbecilic–the issue was penalty, not guilt or innocence.

    Seems to me that you are somewhat confused about the reported facts of this case, as well as what I posted.

    To begin, these murderers are truly racists. The name of their criminal enterprise is “The Asian Boyz Gang.” In case this isn’t clear, “Asian” is a race. By their proclamation, they are operating a racist criminal enterprise. This information, including the race of the murderers, has been repeated over and over in the PD and other news outlets, including the news story about the outrageous legal bill.

    Nowhere did I mention race. I truly don’t care whether these criminal families came from Europe, S. America, Canada or Asia. They came here though the largess of the American people. To thank us, they brought a serious criminal element into our society. We are now saddled with the consequences and costs of their presence. We will be paying for guarding, housing, feeding, medical care and further court proceedings for these criminals for the next 60 years or so. Add to that the lawyers who are double dipping at the public trough, then refusing to justify what they are charging for. I strongly suggest that the families who claim to have come here to escape the violence in their home countries should pay for what they dumped on us. Then they should be deported.

    As to the criminal case, I have to assume you did not read the part about four of these murderers pleading “Not Guilty.” The secondary issue was the penalty phase. Since these lawyers are refusing to divulge what they were charging for, I assume it was mostly bogus. I also strongly object to the lawyers being paid outrageous sums of public money ‘just in case’ there is a death penalty.

  2. Great Ideas says:

    We need the death penalty to punish those who commit murder. The problem is the courts have allowed the system to run amuck. Those crimes described in the article are exactly the crimes that should be punished by death.

  3. Follower says:

    I have often posted examples of the hypocrisy we see from Liberals.

    I expect hypocrisy from Liberals because I understand their views and how they come to embrace those views.
    It REQUIRES “hypocrisy”.

    But when I hear Conservatives touting the “smaller, less intrusive Government” mantra while supporting the ULTIMATE “Government intrusion” I just want to puke!

    There are people among us who have CLEARLY demonstrated that they have no right to live in our Society.

    There are FAR MORE people in positions of power in our Government who have CLEARLY demonstrated that they lack the morals, ethics and/or intellect to decide if someone should live or die.

    Do I want my Tax dollars going to feed, cloth, medicate and comfort the likes of Richard Allen Davis?

    But too me, it would be a small price to pay to know that those very same tax dollars will never be used to execute an innocent American.

    …unless they find themselves in a foreign country being tracked down by one of Obama’s Drones of course.

  4. Reality Check says:

    Capital punishment is inordinately expensive only because opponents have succeeded in imposing judicial review standards that are impossible to meet. That’s a good argument against letting a motivated faction dominate our courts.

    As to capital punishment not being a deterrent, nonsense. We parole people convicted of first degree murder. Some percentage murder again. We can say with certainty that capital punishment would have deterred those murders.

    In any case, with capital punished being imposed in less than 1/10th of 1% of murders, it’s silly to say it’s not a deterrent. Of course not. If your parents said if you come home late tonight there’s a 1/10th of 1% chance we’ll ground you for a week, would you be deterred?

    That said, California is dysfunctional. The odds of it ever operating an cost-effecting system of capital punishment is nil. Give up.

  5. Dick Tracy says:

    @Mendo Tech

    You’re first two paragraphs are 1) racist and 2) imbecilic–the issue was penalty, not guilt or innocence. However, there is truth is the following statement.

    “When you are spending public money, there should be disclosure of exactly what you did to earn that money.”

    I’m sure this can be accomplished consistent with attorney client privilege.

  6. Graeme Wellington says:

    They have almost a 100 public executions a week in China and they even have a television program “Interview Before Execution” where a TV presenter sits down one on one with the convicted murderer the day of or just before execution and gets them to talk about their crimes and confess and apologize to victims or tell their story. It’s all quite incredible what is going on there.

    I’m with Stubblebine now. I wasn’t always. I once thought that if the punishment occurred swiftly and was justified, it could deter behavior. But given how it’s done that way in China we know for certain that even a swift and certain death penalty system would not change the conduct of murderers one bit. The executions in China plow on week after week year after year without the sightest slowdown.

    As far as the Asian Boyz running up the costs of trials it is and has been their strategy for decades. The Asian gangs are not the dumb thugs people believe. Their operations are focused on making profit. The DA’s office needs to be smarter and use resources to expose the obvious frauds on the court they employ and the lawyers who play along to get that guaranteed paycheck. The lawyers must know what is and isn’t BS and play dumb. We know they are not so dumb.

    Since the gang’s entire existance is to make money I find it impossible to believe that a trained investigator could not locate where all their money is or goes and seize it or at least expose it to prevent the public having to pay the bill to defend people who supposedly “can’t afford” a proper defense.

    Even after the fact, they should be activly pursuing the nest egg of the gang itself and use their very cabable civil division to recover the costs being paid out as a result of ingoring such an obvious fraud on the court.

  7. David Stubblebine says:

    I don’t care if bad people like this are executed or rot in jail; it does not matter. The only thing that matters is that the public is protected from their behavior forever and completely. Capital punishment should accomplish this but only at enormous public expense, well beyond the cost of housing a 25-year-old for the rest of his natural life. Unfortunately, the promises to imprison these people without the possibility of parole have not proven to be so permanent (Google “Archie Fain” for one). With the Courts ordering prisoners’ release to ease overcrowding and the ACLU believing they are doing “good” by siding with the criminals, people who the public should be protected from will certainly be walking among us again at some point.

    Capital punishment is neither the deterrent nor, as it turns out in California, the punishment proponents wish it were. I neither favor nor oppose capital punishment on moral grounds, but I must oppose it on fiscal grounds. If the Courts and prisons could really keep the bad people away from us with certainty, there would be no rational justification left for capital punishment.

  8. The Hammer says:

    What a wast of money that could have been used for the roads. What the hell has happened to this country?

  9. MendoTech says:

    How about sending the bill to the parents who brought their criminal spawn to terrorize the citizens of the U.S.?

    And, did any of these attorneys advise their clients that since they are obviously guilty, they should work on a plea bargain rather then a plea of innocence? Of course not: That wouldn’t pay nearly as much.

    As to the attorney who claims “What I did on (my client’s) behalf is between him and me and the court,” I would agree if the client was paying the bill. When you are spending public money, there should be disclosure of exactly what you did to earn that money. The trial is over, so there is no longer a reason for secrecy. That is unless attorney Scott is stiffing us!