Funding questions dog those defending death row inmates

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Louwlynn Vanzetta Williams, director of the Office of Capital Post-Conviction Counsel.

Mississippi Today

Louwlynn Vanzetta Williams, director of the Office of Capital Post-Conviction Counsel

Despite uncertainty about how services will be funded after July 1, the agency that handles death-penalty cases for indigent prisoners is as busy as ever.

It has been four years since Mississippi has executed a person but capital convictions have continued.

“They’re steady charging capital murder. They’re steady having capital murder trials. People are steadily getting convicted,” said Louwlynn Vanzetta Williams, director of the Office of Capital Post-Conviction Counsel. The agency provides services for indigent persons after they have received the death penalty.

Its seven-member staff of attorneys, investigators and paralegals is currently working 30 of Mississippi’s 47 death-row cases, which involves crisscrossing the state in rented cars, flying across the country, and, sometimes, hiring investigators overseas.

That takes money, said Williams, who is among the growing chorus of state officials still grappling with how legislation known as the Mississippi Budget Transparency and Simplification Act will affect their bottom lines.

The bill dumps so-called special funds from various state agency budgets into the general fund and prohibits agencies from charging or collecting money among themselves.

That also extends to assessments, portions of fines that fund some state agencies, including the Office of Capital Post-Conviction Counsel.

Attorney General Jim Hood has bemoaned the sweep from the crime-victims compensation fund and payments to disabled police and firefighters, both also funded by assessments.

“State agencies stand to lose $20 million in federal funding because the federal government will not reimburse under some grants unless agencies have a receipt for rent or services paid to another agency in an arms-length transaction,” Hood said in statement in early May.

In theory, because the bill ends practices such as agencies paying rent to each other, agency directors can use cash previously spent on rent for other things. However, questions remain.

Williams’ office, for example, now pays for all the documents it retrieves such as birth certificates from the Department of Vital Records, information from the Department of Corrections and from open-records requests.

Williams estimates that between and quarter and a third of the agency’s budget is spent on document fees and she is unsure how much of the $1.8 million the Legislature appropriated to her agency will go towards documents and other inter-agency fees.

Liz Sharlot, spokeswoman for the department of health, which oversees the vital records, said agency leaders are still trying to get information from Capitol leaders. Grace Fisher, the MDOC spokeswoman, referred questions back Williams.

In the meantime, Williams is optimistic that everything will get sorted out.

“It should be OK. I’m hoping it’ll be OK,” she said.