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Douglas County attorney seeks funding for homicide trial backlog, rise in autopsies

Douglas County attorney seeks funding for homicide trial backlog, rise in autopsies

The Omaha Police Department and 16 other law enforcement agencies in Nebraska didn't fully report domestic violence statistics from 2014 through 2019.

The Douglas County Attorney’s Office is seeking more money to pay for a growing number of autopsies, a backlog of homicide trials and a rise in felony prosecutions.

Only the trial backlog is related to COVID-19, according to Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine. He’s requesting about $330,000 more than the amount county finance officials are recommending for his 2021-22 fiscal year budget, which begins July 1.

Instead of a budget for 2020-21 of about $11.4 million, the targeted amount set by county finance officials, Kleine is seeking an increase to $11.7 million. If county officials want more money than the targeted amount, they have to appear before the County Board and make their case.

The County Board will vote on Kleine’s request and the entire county budget in June.

“We have 42 homicide trials pending,” Kleine told the Douglas County Board on Tuesday. “I don’t ever remember there being that many.”

That’s partly due to the inability to hold trials during much of the pandemic because of the COVID-19 threat, he said.

“And those are cases that are going to go to trial usually,” Kleine said. “They’re not ones that we can plea out or reach agreements on very easily.”

Felony prosecutions went up by about 100 in 2020, according to documents submitted to the County Board. The County Attorney’s Office handled 4,883 District Court cases in 2020. That continues a trend in which its number of District Court cases have increased by 37.5% from 2011 through 2020.

Kleine said he needs additional funding to add a trial attorney and trial assistant. He said he also has had to hire more law clerks and needs to raise their pay by about $2 an hour, to $15 an hour, to compete with higher-paying Sarpy and Lancaster Counties.

Kleine serves as the official county coroner, but his office contracts for autopsies with private physicians. Autopsies are required to determine cause of death in violent or accidental deaths, suspected suicides or unattended deaths, such as when people die at home and weren’t under a doctor’s care or their doctors can’t determine the cause.

The County Attorney’s Office projects it will hit 444 autopsies by the end of the fiscal year 2021, up from 411 in 2020. Kleine said he didn’t know what was driving the increase, but it isn’t COVID-19. Those causes of death have been almost all handled in hospitals or otherwise by private physicians. The County Attorney’s Office has rarely been called upon, and generally not for an autopsy, Kleine said.

He attributed the increase mainly to population growth but said that anecdotally there appears to be an uptick in deaths related to fentanyl abuse.

The autopsies cost about $2,150 each, according to board documents. That could go up to about $2,500. That’s a very reasonable price, Kleine said, and the doctors who do the autopsies are board-certified and do excellent work.

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Chris Burbach covers the Douglas County Board, Planning Board and other local government bodies, as well as local neighborhood issues. Follow him on Twitter @chrisburbach. Phone: 402-444-1057.

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