County legal work grows

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 11, 2001

One high profile criminal case down and at least two to go this summer in Mower County.

Monday, June 11, 2001

One high profile criminal case down and at least two to go this summer in Mower County.

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On the heels of last week’s successful conviction of three suspects in the June 2000 Downtown Motel murders, the Mower County attorney’s office has but a short time to bask in the flow of a job well done.

A fourth suspect remains to be sentenced in connection with the case. Then, the three St. Paul men found guilty by a Dakota County District Court jury last week of the double murders last summer in Austin will reappear in Mower County District Court on jail escape charges.

Finally, the Austin woman accused of aiding and abetting their escape also faces a court appearance.

Then, attention can be focused on Stacey Benjamin Cotter, the accused slayer of his father, Richard A. Cotter and his father’s female companion, Mary McIntyre of Baltimore, Md., in February.

Cotter is slated to appear in Mower County District Court Monday on new first-degree premeditated murder charges after a grand jury indictment was returned last week.

Still to come is the trial of Troy Alan Meyer, 34, on second-degree murder charges in connection with the death of James Chilson during a flash fire at a methamphetamine lab on the city’s southwest side in January.

The Minnesota attorney general’s office assisted the Mower County attorney’s office in prosecuting the suspects in the Downtown Motel murders. They also are assisting in both the Cotter and Meyer murder cases.

The Mower County attorney’s office needs the assistance for the high-profile murder cases.

It also needs assistance for the thousands of cases that come before the four attorneys throughout the year.

Eighteen months ago, local law enforcement agencies complained to the Mower County attorney about the number of cases police officers, deputies and state troopers, as well as city officers from greater Mower County communities, were seeing dismissed "in the interests of justice."

The peace officers even held a meeting with the county attorney and his associates to air their complaints.

The county attorney agreed to send the law enforcement agencies a weekly status report of criminal cases.

But the rising caseload came at an awkward time for district judges.

For a long while, District Judge Donald E. Rysavy was the only judge in Mower County. When District Judge Michael Seibel’s health deteriorated, he was forced to take lengthy medical leaves of absence. Then, Seibel tragically died and Rysavy was left alone on the bench.

Now, Fred Wellmann is filling the vacancy, giving Mower County two sitting judges.

Still, the caseload continues to increase to the point where the Mower County attorney has been forced to ask the county board to consider adding one or two more prosecutors.

Because of that request, the caseload is being scrutinized by both city of Austin and Mower County officials.

After the county increased the per-diem fees paid by the city for housing prisoners in the Mower County Jail, the county made a request for the city’s assistance in helping pay for extra legal staffing in the Mower County attorney’s office.

Last week, the Austin City Council’s finance committee sent a letter to the Mower County board, saying the city will not pay for extra legal staffing.

City Administrator Patrick A. McGarvey is adamant the jail and other related services provided by Mower County are paid for by the county’s levy for taxes.

"End of discussion," according to McGarvey.

After the city’s latest rejection of the county’s request for financial assistance, county board Chairman, David Hillier, Third District, has referred the matter to the board’s personnel committee.

All he will say at this time is "the matter is under review."

Facing the rising caseload, the county’s prosecutors want action now.

Chief Deputy Prosecutor Glen M. Jacobsen first approached the county board about the need for extra legal staffing a year ago. Jacobsen offered compelling evidence to make his case for assistance in the county attorney’s office.

From 1997 to 2000, felony cases increased 225 percent, gross driving while intoxicated cases increased 216 percent, gross misdemeanor cases (excluding driving while intoxicated cases) increased 141 percent and misdemeanor cases increased by an astonishing 1,950 percent.

The city of Austin, the largest population center in Mower County with more than 50 percent of the entire county’s population, also is responsible for the lion’s share of the increased criminal cases.

According to Jacobsen, criminal and traffic complaints drafted by the county attorney’s office between 1997 and 2000 have jumped from the 200 mark to more than 900 a year.

To support the Mower County attorney’s office request for additional legal staffing, Jacobsen crunched numbers. Major criminal cases, juvenile cases and minor criminal cases add up to 11,034 in 1999, the third straight year they increased. By comparison, Freeborn County had 10,694 in the same 1997-1999 period.

While Mower County’s caseload increased by 600 and then 900 cases in 1998 and 1999, Freeborn County’s increased by 155 and 76 in the same years.

Mower County’s four prosecutors handle an average of 2,275 cases; the highest in a comparison of other four-attorney counties, including Benton, Beltrami, Kandiyoti, Freeborn, Chisago and McLeod.

If the county board decides to add an additional prosecutor, that would reduce the caseload in Mower County to 1,820 cases, which would rank second among the same list of four-attorney counties.

If the county board decides to add two additional prosecutors, it will reduce the caseload to an average of 1,516 cases per prosecutor or approximately the current level of Freeborn County’s prosecutors.

With Mower County Attorney Patrick A. Oman consumed by the high-profile Downtown Motel murders case, Jacobsen was called upon to supply information for the county board in order to seek financial assistance from the city of Austin.

He was forced to apologize to officials for not being able to supply all the information about criminal caseloads, which he said was because of the "sheer volume" of misdemeanor files – from 6,589 in 1997 to more than 8,000 in 2000 – "we have been totally unable to allocate staffing to enter or track the information requested."

Call Lee Bonorden at 434-2232 or e-mail him at