Like we've always said, follow the money trail!
By Sally Kestin and Dana Williams
A law that allows Florida to confine sex predators beyond their prison terms has spawned a cottage industry of expert witnesses who have billed taxpayers more than $26 million, with nearly half of that money going to just 10 people.
The Sun Sentinel obtained court payments for the 14 years the law has been in effect and found:
- A generous payment system lets experts charge full-freight -- $200 an hour -- for traveling and waiting to testify. That’s how one psychologist billed Floridians $9,300 for three hours on the witness stand.
- Attorneys for the most menacing predators “doctor shop’’ at public expense, paying multiple experts before finding one who will support their client’s release.
- One psychologist said the law has provided her "an excellent living." Another said it has done little more than line the pockets of experts on both sides.
“They’re making millions,’’ said Beverly Andringa, a recently retired Pinellas County prosecutor who handled predator cases. “The system is hemorrhaging money.’’
An eight-month Sun Sentinel investigation published in August revealed that nearly 600 sex offenders committed new sex crimes after the state had a chance to keep them locked up.
Florida's sex predator law took effect in 1999 after the rape and dismemberment of a South Florida boy. It allows the state to keep sex offenders locked up after their prison sentences end if prosecutors can prove they have a mental abnormality that makes them likely to attack again.
That process, called civil commitment, requires court hearings and a trial to determine if predators should be confined and then annual reviews to determine if they should be released. Because most predators are poor, the public almost always pays the tab.
Fees paid to expert witnesses for both sides account for the greatest share of the court costs, but just how much was unknown – until now.
'An excellent living'
The Sun Sentinel obtained predator case payments through a public records request with Florida’s Justice Administrative Commission, which processes bills for the court system. The top 10 experts received a combined total of $12 million.
Fort Lauderdale psychologist Amy Swan is the top paid expert in the state; she has made $2.2 million on predator trials since 2000, records show. Swan almost always works for prosecutors.
“I do not deny that I have made an excellent living,’’ said Swan, a predator expert in three other states.
Most of Swan’s Florida work comes from being an evaluator for the state, assessing which sex criminals qualify as predators. Once they’re recommended for confinement and the cases go to court, prosecutors hire her as a witness.
Another top paid expert, Seattle psychologist Natalie Novick Brown, almost always works for the defense. She’s billed taxpayers more than $1.5 million since 2000.
“I just tried another case, again with the fabulous Natalie Brown as my defense expert,’’ said a testimonial on her web site from Jeanine Cohen, a Tampa lawyer who has represented predators. “Natalie Brown has won more cases for me than I can count.”
Unlike criminal cases, in which courts decide guilt or innocence in a crime that’s already occurred, judges and juries in predator confinement cases weigh the probability of future sexual violence. That’s why they rely so heavily on expert testimony.
Brown said she gravitated to the defense because she disagreed with the way the state evaluated sex offenders, and because the state was recommending confinement for too many offenders who were not truly dangerous. An opponent of the law, she said it has served mostly to enrich psychologists on both sides.
“It’s really unfortunate how much money it’s cost the state of Florida. Millions and millions have been made on these laws,’’ Brown said. “The money is just amazing.’’
Brown’s billings caught the attention of the Justice Administrative Commission in 2007, which found she had charged taxpayers for working more than 24 hours a day. She told the commission she billed for work actually done by sub-contractors, recorded incorrect dates for some of the charges and had been distracted by the death of her mother.
“They paid me in full on all of the disputed claims,’’ Brown told the Sun Sentinel. “It was considered inadvertent.’’
Another popular defense expert, psychologist Terence Campbell of Sterling Heights, Mich., has been paid more than $675,000 in Florida since 1999.
Civil commitment is “bad law,’’ Campbell said. “I have to admit I’m one of the people who has benefited.’’
At a Miami-Dade trial last year, prosecutor Audrey Frank-Aponte called Campbell a “professional witness’’ and asked why he frequently billed the same amount to write his sex offender evaluations: 16 hours.
“What you do is you cut and paste and you put it in a report, right?’’ she asked.
“Correct, just like the state’s evaluators do,’’ Campbell responded.
Campbell told the Sun Sentinel that his reports draw from research that took much longer than 16 hours to compile, and his time is fair based on what other experts charge. “I have a huge database that I have developed that has taken me thousands of hours,’’ he said.
Swan said defense experts are often hired based on their personal views opposing the law and because they can be counted on for their testimony. Some of them, she said, rarely conclude that a sex offender should be locked up.
Brown, Campbell and other defense experts dispute that. All said they get cases they can't support.
It’s tough to find experts to testify for the most notorious sex offenders. Some attorneys go to great lengths to find them, at taxpayer expense.
In South Florida and other metropolitan areas of the state with more experts to choose from, some attorneys will keep looking until they find the one who presents the strongest argument for the offender’s release, a process known among experts and attorneys as “doctor shopping.’’
Rob Jakovich, an assistant public defender in Broward County, said he usually succeeds on the first or second try but “there are cases where it takes three, four or sometimes five.’’
“That happens a lot,’’ Brown said.
A defense lawyer for a Palm Beach County predator went through 10 experts before finding one, said prosecutor Reid Scott. A public defender in Central Florida paid as many as seven experts in a single case.
Jurors never find out how many it took because such evidence could unfairly sway their decision.
All the experts are paid for their time, whether or not attorneys use their opinions in court. Florida’s rate is currently up to $200 an hour.
Paid for waiting
Experts in predator trials often get that full hourly fee for time spent traveling or waiting to testify. Those payments are generous compared to those in some criminal cases, where such time can be paid at a reduced rate. For instance, prosecutors in Palm Beach County limit expert witness travel pay in criminal cases to $50 an hour.
Campbell traveled to Miami last year to testify one day in a predator trial. His billing meter started running when he left Michigan on a Tuesday and continued until his return on a Friday.
“All that time you are going to get $200 an hour, except when you are sleeping, eating or doing something recreational?’’ prosecutor Frank-Aponte asked Campbell in court.
“Correct,’’ he responded.
Tallahassee psychologist Chris Robison, whose practice has received nearly $1.9 million since 1999, mostly from defense attorneys, testified in August on behalf of a predator in St. Lucie County. He spent three-and-a-half hours on the witness stand and billed for 51 hours, records show.
The $11,000 tab included 20 hours for travel, 12 hours for being on standby, eight hours of trial preparation and seven hours to observe the proceedings – all at $200 an hour. Taxpayers also picked up his $700 bill for five nights’ hotel stay.
Robison said the charges are customary “because the burden of appearing at trial precludes any opportunity to otherwise engage in practice at home.’’ He said the travel costs were unusually high because the trial extended into a second week, requiring two trips.
|Dr. Douglas Shadle|
The case of South Florida rapist _____ shows how high costs go. Taxpayers spent $155,000 on experts alone.
_____ had been to prison four times and had a rap sheet that included five sex-related crimes. He raped a woman he picked up walking along a Miami street, broke into a house and assaulted a 12-year-old girl, and repeatedly beat his girlfriend, holding her captive for days, said prosecutor Suzanne Von Paulus.
The case went to trial twice with each side hiring two experts. In the first case, _____’s lawyer flew in Brown from Seattle. She was paid $35,000, including 24 hours for travel and two flights at nearly $1,000 apiece, invoices show.
The state’s main witness in both trials, Amy Swan, billed taxpayers $78,700.
_____’s first trial ended in a split jury and the second in a verdict finding he was not a predator.
Two months after his release, police arrested _____ when a homeless woman he had taken in said he beat and strangled her. _____ was not charged with a sex crime, but the victim said in a deposition that he had forced her into sex acts almost every night and kept her locked in the house.
_____’s prior victims were women “living on the margins,’’ Von Paulus said. “I was so incredibly angry that he was up to his old tricks.’’
Convicted of battery, _____ served 10 months in jail and has since been arrested six more times on charges including aggravated battery and domestic violence.
David Waksman, a former prosecutor in _____’s first predator trial, said he was shocked at some of the invoices his own experts submitted, billing up to 20 hours for preparation even though the case kept getting delayed.
“I’ve tried a lot of cases involving mental health issues, where both sides would hire a psychologist,’’ Waksman said. “You get a bill for two hours. Here, the bills are a lot higher.’’
All Floridians pay those bills, no matter which county handles the case.
Costs are disproportionately high in Miami-Dade County, where predator trials can take up to two weeks compared to a few days elsewhere, largely because of testimony from multiple experts. Of the 50 most expensive cases in the state since the law took effect, nearly half were in Miami-Dade County.
In Broward and some other counties, attorneys have agreed to limit experts to one for each side. Douglas Shadle, a Punta Gorda psychiatrist and defense expert, would like to see that statewide.
“I don’t think juries need to hear from four or five experts,’’ he said. “That’s a lot of expense to the state.’’
Shadle has been paid more than $780,000 since 2004. He said Florida needs better cost controls.
“We’re spending way too much on these cases,’’ Shadle said. “You need to get one person for the state, one person for the [defense] and say, ‘Look, this is the data we have’ and let the jury decide.’’
- (Part 1) Florida sets rapists and child molesters free to strike again
- (Part 3) Series prompts legislative reforms, program changes