Over the complaints of Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer, Orange County supervisors Tuesday approved renewing a nearly $4 million grant for a team of attorneys combing through murder convictions to see which defendants should no longer be imprisoned under a new legal theory.

Spitzer griped that his office has “absorbed the cost” of handling petitions for release under a new law that changed the legal theory for murder that previously allowed for convictions of defendants who were indirectly involved in the execution or planning of the crime.

Under the old law any association with a killing would leave everyone involved at risk of a murder conviction, but lawmakers have narrowed it to the actual killer and anyone who substantially aided and abetted the crime.

“What’s happening today is the Legislature is committed to early release and the governor is closing prisons and they’re funding public defenders across the state,” Spitzer told the supervisors. “Just the felony rule alone — we considered 600 petitions since the murder statute was passed and we have 192 current petitions… I have not come to this board. I’ve absorbed the additional cost to fight changes in state law, but we know what their agenda is.

“We are being put in a great position if disadvantage. I hate to speak against the grant because I understand that Mr. (Martin) Schwarz could use the money to fund his ability to do this work but I can’t rebut this workload without additional resources.”

Supervisor Andrew Do suggested delaying approval of the grant for 30 days so more information about it could be gathered. The board was being asked to approve the grant for the Public Defender as well as grants for the OC Health Care Agency and Public Works. He later backed off, however, when the county’s Public Defender Martin Schwarz pointed out that his office would have to pass off the work to other attorneys, which would cost more money, and that delaying the grant could jeopardize it.

“This is a grant renewal,” he said. “We’re asking the board to accept year two funding of what we hope to be a three-year grant.”

The work is “mandated” and will have to be done whether the grant was accepted or not, Schwarz said.

“Whether the county accepts the grant funding or not the county is on the hook to provide these services regardless,” Schwarz said.

The grant pays for 25 attorneys and aides in his office, he said. Those positions would be lost if the grant was not accepted, he added.

Schwarz said it was the first time the state has provided any money for the unfunded mandate.

Supervisor Katrina Foley said she was “disappointed” that the issue was raised a day before the grant had to be renewed.

“It’s not fair to the board to be putting this all on us without the appropriate information,” Foley said.

If Schwarz’s office could not do the work it would be assigned to another county agency — the Alternate Defender’s Office, which takes cases where there’s a conflict for the Public Defender. If there’s a conflict with the Alternate Defender’s Office then a private attorney is given the work.

Supervisor Vicente Sarmiento said he shared Do’s concerns and desire to delay approval to do more fact finding, but he said it made more sense to approve the grants.

“I am a little troubled also about the late-breaking nature of the concerns,” Orange County Board Chairman Don Wagner said.

Wagner was critical of the new law, but, he added, “We have to provide the services. And it’s the second go-around of this grant. Maybe a month ago it would have been appropriate to focus, to step back and see how did year one go and see what adjustments we need to do in year two. We were denied the opportunity by the late-breaking nature of these objections.”

Spitzer said it was unfair that Schwarz’s office has been funded to do the work and his office has not. He said the Public Defender is “creating more work” for his office.

Wagner said that was an unfair characterization.

“The notion that Mr. Schwarz has a number — 24 or whatever — and that their job is to create more work.. their job is to follow the statutes good or bad and try to get relief… I don’t see that as creating more work,” Wagner said.

Orange County Supervisor Doug Chaffee said it was “ironic” that Spitzer was arguing that the grant would take money out of his budget when denying it would force the county to dig deeper to pay for the work.

“I am sympathetic to the workload the district attorney has, but I think this needs to be accepted.”

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