KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The head of Missouri's public defender system says a suspect in the slaying of a transgender teen should be spared from facing the death sentence if he's convicted because there isn't enough money to adequately defend him.
Missouri State Public Defender Office director Michael Barrett argued this month in a motion filed in Andrew Vrba's first-degree murder case that it's not fair that the state is stepping in to help county prosecutors while also "depriving the defense of the resources necessary to provide diligent, effective, and conflict-free-representation." The motion is the latest effort to draw attention to funding problems that have prompted an ACLU lawsuit and increasingly led Missouri public defenders to turn down new cases.
"Simply put," the motion said, "if the State wishes to have a death penalty, it needs to pay for it."
Vrba is one of four suspects charged in the death of 17-year-old Ally Steinfeld, who had been missing for weeks when her burned remains were found in September in the town of Cabool, a rural area about 70 miles (115 kilometers) east of Springfield. Investigators say her eyes were gouged out and that she was stabbed several times, including in the genitals. Authorities in Texas County, Missouri, aren't saying what led to the killing, but have insisted the crime was not motivated by Steinfeld's gender identity.
After announcing plans in April to seek the death penalty against Vrba, county prosecutors requested help from the state attorney general's office, citing a lack of resources and time to handle it. Barrett cried foul, saying the public defender's capital division staff is "burdened with the greatest number of open cases in approximately twenty years" and has been rendered "unable to perform its constitutionally required function."
Missouri attorney general's office spokesman Ryan Cross didn't immediately return a phone message from The Associated Press. Texas County prosecutor Parke Stevens Jr. was in court Wednesday and didn't immediately return a message.
The motion highlighted several studies that found that the public defender's system is underfunded. The funding situation came to a head last year when the ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit seeking to force the state to spend more. Then last fall, the Missouri Supreme Court justices disciplined an attorney with a large caseload they said risked client neglect and later told a public defender she must ask permission before denying additional cases. Following the rulings, more public defenders have been turning down cases, leading to months-long waits before some suspects get legal representation.
The motion said the state has "knowingly disregarded its obligations to provide diligent, effective, and non-conflicted counsel to poor persons who face loss of liberty, which is presented in rather glaring contrast to how the ease with which the (Texas County Prosecuting Attorney) appears able to procure whatever resources it wishes in the State's effort to execute Mr. Vrba."
Barrett also said in the motion that the attorney general's office shouldn't be allowed to handle the prosecution because of "repeated ethical violations" in other cases. A hearing on the motion is scheduled for July.