A grant will cover $60,000 of Potter County’s cost to retain experts for three defendants in an upcoming murder trial.
“In a small county, that’s significant,” said Potter County President Judge Stephen Minor. “We receive no funding from the state. All the cost has to come out of the county.”
The grant secured from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency will cover $20,000 per defendant from its Capital Case Indigent Defense funds. “Indigent” refers to a defendant who meets certain financial requirements to qualify for representation by the county’s public defender or a court-appointed lawyer.
However, Minor said having three defendants each needing two attorneys with one qualified in the death penalty presented a problem.
“When someone is charged with capital murder, that means the death penalty can be brought up. We haven’t executed anyone in Pennsylvania since 1999, but it’s still an option,” said Minor. “This means I have to find two lawyers for each defendant, and one has to be death penalty-certified. They have to had tried a certain number of cases involving the death penalty.”
With few murder trials and even fewer of such attorneys in rural north central Pennsylvania, Minor said a statewide search ensued.
“We had to look around the state. We now have ones from Williamsport, Clearfield, Reynoldsville,” said Minor.
According to court records, representing Krysten Lauren Crosby, 21, are Joseph Ryan of Reynoldsville and Eric Gurney of Wellsboro. Representing Felicia Kay Cary, 34, are Walter Stenhach, Potter County Public Defender, and Christ Pentz of Clearfield. Representing Kyle Michael Nathan Moore, 30, are Edward Rymsza of Williamsport and Thomas Walrath of Wellsboro.
Minor said the PCCD grant will not cover the fees for these attorneys, but the experts they enlist to help them argue “mitigating circumstances.”
“When the Commonwealth says it was an aggravated circumstance, the defense wants to prove a mitigating circumstance. They’re entitled to certain experts, one being a mitigation expert. They’ll look into things like mental health or drug and alcohol use that could perhaps mitigate the findings for the death penalty,” Minor said.
He said in these types of cases, it’s the jury’s job to determine the sentence – life in prison or death. And it’s his job as the judge to “protect the constitutional rights of the defendants and make sure they’re given a valid defense.”
Minor sought help to apply for the PCCD grant of $280,000 to used across the state with up to $20,000 per defendant.
Taking on the task was someone who secured more than $1 million in grants for the county: Colleen Wilber, drug and alcohol administrator for Potter County Human Services.
“When you’re writing a grant, you need to talk their language, so I had to do a quick study on mitigation specialists,” said Wilber. “That’s certainly not my area of expertise, so I learned a lot.”
Wilber oversees the county’s drug and alcohol treatment courts, so she said she sees her duties as administrator and that of the county’s judicial system as one in the same. She said she also knows the power of securing grants when certain programs or county-provided services can get pricey.
According to a study by the RAND Corporation published in the American Journal of Criminal Justice in 2016, the average cost to taxpayers for judicial/legal services rendered in a homicide case was between $22,000 and $44,000. The study used 2010 data; those figures would be around $27,400-$54,800 today adjusting for inflation.