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Hidalgo-County-SealA grant proposed to provide funding for additional manpower in the Hidalgo County Public Defenders Office could either save the county a lot of money or cost it.

Chief Public Defender Jaime E. Gonzalez asked Hidalgo County Commissioners Court to approve a grant application for 2015 Indigent Defense Multi-Year Discretionary Grant for capital murder defense Tuesday. Gonzalez said there are only eight attorneys in Hidalgo County approved to defend capital murder cases, where the penalty for the defendant, if found guilty, would be life without parole or death.

The proposed grant would provide the county with two attorneys and two investigators to take care of capital murder cases in Hidalgo County. They would be able to handle up to 12 cases per year. While Hidalgo County has averaged two to three capital murder cases per year, five or six years ago 10 defendants had separate trials. The cost for the county to provide indigent defense services ran into the millions, according to Gonzalez. Indigent means the defendant is unable to afford legal counsel.

Gonzalez said he was modeling his program after Lubbock, which handles capital murder cases for 85 rural counties surrounding it.

In Lubbock, a defendant is considered indigent if he and his dependents are eligible to receive food stamps, Medicaid, temporary assistance for needy families, supplemental social security incomes or public housing. His income cannot exceed 125 percent of poverty guidelines. The individual may be serving a sentence in a correctional institution, be in a mental institution or be subject to a hearing that would place him in a mental institution.

Gonzalez said the grant, if received, would also provide up to $125,000 to bring in experts to testify on the defendant’s behalf.

Under the terms of the grant, there would be an 80/20 percent split in costs the first year with the county paying the 20 percent. The second year, the split would be 60/40 percent. The third year the grant would have a 40/60 percent share of costs. In year four, the split would be 20/80 percent with the county paying most costs. By year five, the county would be responsible for all costs of the program.

Gonzalez said whether the county would get full benefit from the program would depend on the number of capital murder cases it received. If there were only a few, the program could cost the county money, but if there is another situation like the one that existed five years ago, the savings to the county would be enormous.

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