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State still not paying bills in Mexican national’s death penalty case

Defense attorneys for an undocumented immigrant facing the death penalty in Missouri said prosecutors still haven’t paid for some work a court ordered.

St. Louis judge Steven Ohmer decided that either the Attorney General’s Office or Montgomery County must pay up to $40,000 worth of defense work for Pablo Serrano-Vitorino. However, Serrano’s public defenders said that those offices have not paid the bills submitted so far, halting the work they claim is crucial for the death penalty case.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Serrano in the 2016 killing of Randy Nordman just outside of New Florence. Serrano was allegedly on the run from Kansas authorities after a quadruple homicide there. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement said Serrano had been deported a decade prior, but did not know when he returned to the United States. ICE also sent a request to detain Serrano months before the killings to the wrong law enforcement agency.

Serrano’s attorneys asked Ohmer to either force prosecutors to pay for the work, or drop the death penalty altogether.

Invoices the Missouri State Public Defender’s Office filed in court show that mitigation specialist Laura Tansey has sent in invoices for $22,458 worth of work from September to December. The specific work is redacted, but shows Tansey charged the state $125 an hour. Lawyers claim they paid the initial $19,000 fee for Tansey’s work, per Ohmer’s order.

Prosecutors have disputed the order to pay for the work since it was issued. Higher courts have denied hearing an appeal, however. Assistant Attorney General Gregory Goodwin wrote on Nov. 26, 2018 that the office would only reimburse the public defender’s office for Tansey’s work, rather than pay the bill outright. Goodwin said that Ohmer’s order also required them to pay the “entire bill,” rather than a series of them.

The public defender’s office hired Laura Tansey, a Texas-based mitigation specialist, to help with Serrano’s case. Tansey’s work includes traveling to Mexico, where Serrano is from, to research Serrano’s background and upbringing. The results of that work would be used only if the jury finds Serrano guilty and must decide if the death penalty is warranted.

Tansey wrote to defense attorneys Jan. 16 about the missing payments. She had already made two trips to Mexico and done dozens of interviews, she said. Until the payments came through, Tansey said, work on the case would stop.

“Although I believe strongly in the need to vigorously pursue the constitutionally necessary mitigation investigation in Mr. Serrano Vitorino’s case, it is simply not feasible for me to continue to work without payment,” Tansey said. “Accordingly, I cannot continue to conduct further mitigation investigation into Mexico — the core of the mitigation work in this case — until the funding issue has been resolved.”

Chelsea Mitchell, a public defender working on Serrano’s case, said that state law prohibits the office from paying for work, then seeking reimbursement from another state agency.

A hearing is scheduled for Feb. 22 on the issue.

Family members of Serrano’s alleged victims sued ICE for its failure to get Serrano when it had the chance. A federal judge dismissed the claim based on sovereign immunity.

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