News & Politics

The Cost of a Good Defense

The Robert Wone trial is costing the accused a fortune.

At 4:05 yesterday, defense attorney David Schertler rose to his feet in DC Superior Court and began to cross-examine police officer Kevin Jeter, an evidence technician. The veteran cop had collected towels and shirts from the Swann Street, Northwest, house where Robert Wone was murdered.

“Hello, Officer Jeter,” Schertler said. “Good to see you again.”

It was day six in the case against three men who lived in the house where Wone had planned to spend the night on August 2, 2006. Ninety minutes after Wone arrived, he was dead from stab wounds to the chest. The three residents blame an intruder; prosecutors have charged them with covering up the crime and misleading cops.

Schertler and another defense attorney questioned Jeter for about 20 minutes. What did that 20 minutes cost in legal fees? Our estimate: $1,000.

Jeter already had testified that he had collected towels from the second-floor bathroom and the washing machine. They’re germane to the charge of evidence tampering. There was little blood on Wone’s body. Had the towels been used to sop up blood and then been cleaned? Were they wet or dry? How did they get to the evidence room?

Schertler questioned Jeter for about 15 minutes on the precise manner of how he’d handled and photographed the towels. Jeter explained that he’d taken pictures, dropped them in plastic bags, sealed the bags, took them to the police evidence room, initialed them, had two other cops initial them, and handed them over for processing.

Schertler asked Jeter to explain the difference between putting the bags in a bin, as he used to do, and the new practice of giving them to a technician who catalogued them.

Next, defense attorney Thomas Connolly approached Jeter.

“You checked the towels in the bathroom 24 hours after the night of the murder,” he said. “Wouldn’t you expect them to be dry?”

“Objection,” said assistant US attorney Patrick Martin.

“Sustained,” said Judge Lynn Leibovitz.

Connolly then hammered Jeter on whether the towels in the washing machine had been cleaned. They still had spots on them. Wouldn’t they be spotless had they been through the cycle?

    “All depends on how good the machine is,” Jeter responded.

    Connolly conferred with his three colleagues, turned to the judge and said: “No further questions.”

    Bernie Grimm, the third defense attorney, declined to cross.

    To get a sense of the cost of the billable minutes consumed in the questioning, we consulted with lawyers in Washington and Philadelphia, as well as a legal recruiter, to arrive at estimates of what the attorneys might charge:

Dave Schertler, who represents Dylan Ward, charges around $650 an hour. His associate, Veronica Jennings, was on the scene for the Jeter cross-examination. She’s been at the trial every day. She costs about $350 an hour. We can assume that a paralegal or Schertler staffer came to deliver or retrieve documents. We can round out the cost of one hour of Schertler’s and his staff’s time at $1,100.

When Schertler’s partner, Robert Spagnoletti, is in courtroom 310, that adds another $500 to the tab.

We estimate that Tom Connolly—of Wiltshire & Grannis—charges about $600 an hour. Representing Victor Zaborsky, he also comes to court with staff. Let’s say he and his team cost $900 an hour.

And then there’s Bernard Grimm of the Philadelphia firm Cozen O’Connor. Though he occasionally gets on Fox TV to talk about controversial cases, Grimm might not command the pay scale of Schertler. Philly firms can come cheaper than DC and certainly much less than ones in New York. We estimate that Grimm comes in at $625 an hour. With his team, he could cost Joe Price $1,000 an hour.

That leaves us with a best guess of $3,000 per hour for the three legal teams—and therefore, $1,000 for the 20-minute cross-examination of officer Jeter.

If Judge Leibovitz keeps court in session six hours a day, that’s $18,00 in legal charges. She seems to be holding court four days a week, which puts a week at $72,000. If the trial takes six weeks, as many have projected, the number is $432,000 for court time. But because we assume the teams work on the case when they’re not in court, let’s round off at $500,000.

The government charged the three men in November 2008 , 2008, and they immediately lawyered up, which means Schertler, Grimm, and Connolly—with their staffs—have been billing hours for a year and a half. If they worked on the Wone defendants ten hours a week, that adds up to $2.34 million.

And we have yet to add in the cost of expert witnesses, such as Dr. Henry Lee, the celebrated criminologist of O.J. Simpson fame, who’s expected to testify for the Wone defendants.

Kathy Wone, Robert’s widow, has the most-expensive lawyers. At least one Covington & Burling attorney seems to be in the courtroom to monitor the trial, in preparation for the $20-million wrongful-death suit the Wones are bringing against the three defendants.

But Covington is representing Kathy Wone gratis because Robert Wone was once at the firm. 

Subscribe to Washingtonian
Follow Washingtonian on Twitter

More>> Capital Comment Blog | News & Politics | Party Photos